Spring football: Cyclones emphasize defense
By Wes Holtsclaw
With six of its front seven players gone to graduation, defense was a big focus for Elizabethton’s football team in the spring.
Moving players around on the defensive line, filling some roles at the linebacker position and loading up the offensive front were keys to the agenda for head coach Shawn Witten.
“Spring for us and a lot of teams, you’re always going to have 95 percent of your offensive and defensive linemen and those guys are your foundation, getting those guys a lot of work,” Witten saidTuesday. “From a skill standpoint, you’re always trying to develop the young guys with some of the older guys not there, it gives them a chance to really shine and show the coaches what they can do. We got 10 great days in, a lot of quality work especially from an interior lineman standpoint.”
On the bright side, the Cyclones will field 22 seniors this fall after last year’s 10-2 campaign, including a bevy of skill players such as two-time all-state running back Ethan Thomas. Elizabethton has a strong group of players rising from their previous roles, chomping at the bit to help the orange and black make another run at a Three Rivers Conference championship and an extraordinarily tough Class 4-A in East Tennessee.
“The thing for us, we’re going to have about 22 seniors which is a big group,” said Witten, who fielded 18 seniors in 2012 and 19 one year ago. “Half of them have been Friday night players and impact players. The other half have been JV players and role players. Now those role players are going to have to become impact players as seniors.
“We should have a lot of great senior leadership. Even though we lack experience in a lot of ways, the maturity factor should help us early on.”
This spring, coaches were given an opportunity to dig down in the trenches with a number of players and give the athletes a good look at where to focus their attention this summer before regular practice begins.
There will be a lot of new faces and, perhaps, a lot of rotation as players get acclimated.
“After the 2012 season we lost five offensive linemen and we were able to replace those and put up big rushing numbers in 2013,” said Witten. “This year, we’re basically replacing our whole front seven on defense except for one linebacker in Hunter Hodges. Hunter was in baseball, so we got a chance — every defensive lineman and linebacker is going to be new to the defense.
“Our secondary is going to be very experienced. Our strength on defense is from a skill standpoint in the secondary. There’s a handful of guys — we’re going to be young and inexperienced on defense, we’re not going to be as big as we’ve been in the past, we don’t have the experience. We really tried to focus on finding those guys. In the past, two or three guys played that front position. This year, we’ll probably rely on five or six guys to rotate in there early on.”
Guys like Sam Young, Damon Heaton, Josh Potter and Steven Grindstaff competed for the defensive end spot, while Chris Cifers and Johnny Ray Woodby saw work on the interior at nose tackles. Zeb Eggers got some work at tight end, tackle and defensive end while Jacob McKinney, who missed the 2013 season due to a back injury, has returned at offensive guard and defensive end.
On the linebacking front, Caleb Hancock has filled in opposite Hodges on the inside. Senior Garrett Church and junior Keet Scalf worked hard on the outside.
“Those guys are some names that we’re really going to be counting on big time,” Witten said. “At the same aspect, getting those guys on the defensive end and on the offensive end as well.
“We’ve got a lot of bodies, it’s a matter of which guy is going to step up. We’ll probably have to rely on a lot of those guys to get the job done.”
With key skill players such as quarterback Caleb Armstrong, Thomas, Jeremiah Turner, Isaiah Clark, Markus Olds — all seniors — locked up in other spring activities, a pair of juniors in Jalen Smith and Drew Bowers stood out in their absence.
Smith, at 6-foot-2, showed great route-running with his speed whereas Bowers, who is also competing at safety, impressed from a work ethic standpoint in the slot.
From a scrimmage standpoint, the Cyclones’ drills were cut short after 45 minutes against Volunteer due to weather on the final day of spring. On the flip side, it was enough of a taste to get the players prepared for morning workouts throughout the summer leading into seven-on-seven workouts.
“It’s good to go against somebody different, get a little taste of it going into the summer,” said Witten. “It gives them a little bit of motivation, gets them excited and gets the blood flowing. You really see some things they’ve got to work on.”
As far as the summer is concerned, the Cyclones will compete in a number of passing leagues and participate in two high-profile scrimmages against Morristown West (August 1) and Dobyns-Bennett (August 8) before the season gets underway.
“There will be a lot of new names, guys who have been in the program, guys who have paid their dues and put in three years of hard work to make something happen,” said Witten. “We’re excited about the progress a lot of kids have made.”
The upcoming season could be the final season of high school football at historic Brown-Childress Stadium as the new athletic complex falls into place at Elizabethton High School.
With a home grid that includes Science Hill, Tennessee High, David Crockett, Happy Valley and a potential conference championship showdown against Sullivan South, the old ball field will go out in style.
“we thought last year, we had some rumors it would be the last time,” Witten added. “This time, hopefully, it will be. We’ve got a great home schedule. It’s going to be really exciting for our fans and community.”