We did it at the midpoint of the season.
Might as well do it after the regular season, too.
The 5Star Preps team offers its insights into the first 10 games of the season and what’s to come in the playoffs with these five topics.
1. What’s the top game you covered during the regular season?
JESSE SMITHEY: Easy. It was Alcoa’s 34-28 win over Maryville. Somehow, I ended up in a bear hug from former Alcoa star running back Taharin Tyson — the post-game celebration was that nuts. I’m not sure Alcoa even had a post-game huddle or talk from its coaches after the win. Once the Tornadoes got that fumble in the final minute, chaos ensued. Alcoa knocked off Maryville for the first time since that 2009-10 two-year span when the Tornadoes beat the Rebels in back-to-back season. Tyson happened to be on those Alcoa teams. I’ve covered every Alcoa-Maryville game since 2006, and the 2018 edition was THE best regular-season, game-long atmosphere I’ve been around. Period.
MIKE BLACKERBY: Oct. 12 at Greeneville: Greeneville 35, Elizabethon 20. The atmosphere was electric in Greeneville for the match-up of undefeated teams. Both sides of Burley Stadium were packed by passionate fan bases.
The Greene Devils and Cyclones, who both played at high levels, didn’t disappoint.
That game, played in a picturesque small-town USA, is emblematic of what high school football is supposed to be all about.
DANNY PARKER: Not an easy answer because we cover so many terrific matchups and are part of numerous fantastic atmospheres, but the Week 9 showdown between then-undefeated Elizabethton and undefeated Greeneville for what was essentially the Region 1-4A championship takes the cake. It included packed bleachers on both sides of Burley Stadium, glorious hedges around the playing surface and lengthy, yet friendly lines to the restroom. Tacking on to the environment was more than a half dozen Division I-bound players, including two of Tennessee’s premier signal-callers. It even had some postgame smack talk amongst fans to keep the entertainment going: “Keep walking!”
It was a prize fight for much of the contest before Greeneville pulled away late for a 35-20 win. Expectations for some is for these two to rematch in a TSSAA Class 4A quarterfinal. If that comes to fruition, sign me up for the 5Star Preps coverage. Had always been impressed by the support the Greene Devils got in Cookeville and could not wait to see what it’s like in their back yard. Greeneville didn’t disappoint.
DAVE LINK: Fulton 21, Powell 10.
It was Aug. 31, Powell’s third game of the season, at home for its biggest test of the young season.
Fulton was in the house.
Powell coach Matt Lowe had fans and players energized. It was a great atmosphere. Powell trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter, had a potential go-ahead drive stopped on downs at Fulton’s 15, and Xavier Malone threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to JaShaun Fenderson for a 21-10 lead.
Powell drove to Fulton’s 13-yard line and was stopped on downs with 1:06 left. This game was signaled Powell was on the right track with the return of Lowe in his second stint as coach. Fulton (9-1) is a state title contender in Class 5A. And we know what happened to the Panthers. They were 8-2 in games on the field, but officially went 2-8 after forfeiting their first six games for using an ineligible player.
Sophomore Fernando Frances rushed for 132 yards on 20 carries and scored on a 37-yard run against Fulton, but wasn’t on the field for Powell’s last three games of the season.
2. What’s your surprise team and surprise player this season?
JESSE SMITHEY: Union County, hands down. Nobody could’ve seen this coming. A program that nearly dissolved a few years ago, after multiple winless seasons, gets taken over by a late-60s-something coach (Larry Kerr), and — IN HIS SECOND SEASON — goes 6-4 and makes the 4A playoffs?! C’mon, man. This is Disney movie type of stuff, and the script is writing itself.
My surprise player is Central senior wide receiver Demetrien Johnson. The more I see the 6-foot-3 wideout, the more I’m convinced he can play on the FBS level at wideout or at safety. Last season, he had less than 200 yards receiving. This fall, he has 42 catches for 823 yards and five scores. He’s also picked off three passes this season and recorded four pass deflections.
MIKE BLACKERBY: Austin-East.After watching the Roadrunners struggle in the preseason, I had them penciled in for maybe three or four wins. Kudos to coach Jeff Phillips and the Roadrunners, who managed to significantly improve, crank out a 7-3 regular season and qualify for the playoffs.
A-E lost to the top-ranked teams in Class 3A (Alcoa), 5A (Fulton) and to one of the better teams in Ohio (Wayne).
Biggest surprise player – Bearden’s Shamarcus Brown.
Shamarcus Brown was known exclusively for his work as a post player on Bearden’s highly regarded basketball team.
That was before he decided to give football a try this season.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound senior, who hadn’t played football since he was in the eighth grade, was an immediate force for the Bulldogs at defensive end.
Despite missing two games during the regular season, Brown was second on the team in total tackles, second in tackles for losses and first in quarterback sacks.
DANNY PARKER: Cocke County getting to 7-3 and making the Class 5A playoffs should not be overlooked. Tip of the cap to Union County for working its way into the 4A playoffs as well. But, if I have to pick just one, my biggest surprise is Knoxville Central. No team improved from start to finish more than fifth-year coach Bryson Rosser’s Bobcats. Back-to-back home losses to start the 2018 season kicked Central out of my personal Top 15 poll for the area, However, Central advances into the 5A bracket as a No. 1 seed and Region 2 champions, winner of eight straight and it has not allowed a point in its last 10 quarters.
Caleb Wilkins’ hair gets your attention immediately when you see him on the soccer pitch for the Bearden Bulldogs. After first seeing him in action in fútbol, he looked like a kid built more for football. That turned out to be a solid guess as he’s a battering ram for a Bearden team that may be the area’s best No. 4 seed in several years. Wilkins is a key member to a physical ground attack on one side of the ball and can lay the wood on the defensive side. If the Bulldogs pull off the upset of No. 1-seed Maryville in Round 1 of the 6A playoffs, it likely will be due in large part to Wilkins having a huge game.
DAVE LINK: This is more of a surprise player and his resiliency than a surprise team.
Stanton Martin’s second comeback from injury in less than a year has been amazing.
The Anderson County quarterback suffered a fibula fracture on his ankle and torn ligaments early in summer but was on the field for the season opener against Carter and hasn’t missed a beat.
Martin is a big reason the Mavericks (10-0, 6-0 in Region 2-4A) are poised for another run in the playoffs. Remember, Martin suffered a severe knee injury in last year’s Class 4A state quarterfinal loss to eventual state champion Greeneville.
3. Who’s your regular-season MVP?
MIKE BLACKERBY: Fulton’s Deshawn Page. The 6-2, 217-pound Page never comes off the field for the Falcons.
He pulls off the difficult feat of playing linebacker and running back, yet leads Fulton in both rushing yards and tackles.
Page is the best college linebacker prospect to come out of East Tennessee since Todd Collins at Jefferson County in 1987.
DANNY PARKER: Athlete for athlete, the Fulton Falcons are loaded and will be a tough out for anyone in the 5A postseason. They have several players heading off to play DI football after they’re done showing out on Broadway. The straw that stirs the drink over there is do-it-all senior JaShaun Fenderson. He contributes defensively, handles the punting duties, can flip the field as a returner and is a splash play waiting to happen as a multi-dimensional offensive weapon. If I am Fulton coach Rob Black, I’m making sure Fenderson doesn’t have an allergic reaction to leather because I’d plan on saddling up and riding that young man throughout the playoffs. Funnel the football through Fenderson and good things will happen.
DAVE LINK: It’s a toss-up between Alcoa senior quarterback Walker Russell and Alcoa senior running back K’Vaughn Tyson.
They’re my picks for the two best players on the top-ranked team in the 5 Star Preps coverage area.
I’ll go with Tyson.
Alcoa is the team to beat going into the Class 3A state playoffs.
JESSE SMITHEY: Well, the season Cade Ballard is having is just silly: 85.7 completion percentage, 32 passing TDs and no interceptions. My non-Cade-Ballard answer would be Farragut senior running back Kyle Carter (1,219 yards, 19 TDs). You take that guy off that roster and Farragut is 7-3 at best, not 9-1. He’s been the most consistent producer on that offense, which has seen a few of its skill guys get banged up throughout the 11-week, regular-season grind. Carter can earn the hard yards. He can bounce the run to the outside and get the cool highlight run. I nearly picked Catholic freshman WR Tommy Winton. That guy has kept Catholic’s season afloat through a ton of injuries. He leads the Irish in receiving (642 yards, six TDs), kickoff return yards (290) and second in rushing (423 yards, six TDs).
4. Who’s your player to watch this postseason?
MIKE BLACKERBY: Anderson County’s Stanton Martin.
Anderson County’s record-setting senior quarterback will have to be at his very best for the Mavericks to advance deep in the 4A playoffs. Martin, playing on an injured knee, almost helped AC pull off a huge win in last year’s quarterfinals at eventual state champion Greeneville.
The Mavs will likely have to navigate the gauntlet of Elizabethton and Greeneville in Rounds 2 and 3.
Will Martin provide the magic to get AC over the top?
JESSE SMITHEY: Maryville junior running back Tee Hodge needs to have a monster postseason. With the Rebels kicking off their 6A title defense against an 8-2 Bearden team with a stingy, physical defense, Hodge needs to run like he did against Oakland — like a beast — and make plays in the pass game, too. He’s got a Tennessee offer. He’s got a Louisville offer. He has to play like that week in and week out in the 6A playoffs. He’s the lead back at Maryville, a program with 16 state titles. I know he’s motivated to do just that.
DANNY PARKER: Had Karns been able to squeak into the playoffs, my postseason spotlight would center on all-everything receiver Thomas Harper. Alas, his career here on the gridiron is over. That leaves the door open wide for so many players that are exciting to watch. As spread offenses have taken over from the ground-and-pound movement, pass catchers have many more opportunities to showcase themselves. Some who are matchup nightmares for upcoming foes are Farragut’s Tanner Corum, Greeneville’s Cameron Hite and Greenback’s Holden Willis — and all three for different reasons. Corum is usually the most explosive athlete on the field. Hite’s combination of aggression and strength make him tough to guard and bring down. Few 1A teams anywhere have a defensive back that can match Willis’s height and length. This list could easily be five times as long but those are some of the players that weaponize their respective offenses and provide big-play ability that gets people on their feet.
DAVE LINK: Catholic junior quarterback Jack Jancek was back on the field last Friday night for the regular-season finale, a 42-0 victory at Lenoir City.
Jancek, who was sidelined with an ankle injury since the second game against Chattanooga Baylor, completed 8-of-9 passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns in less than a half of action against Lenoir City.
Catholic (6-3) plays host to West (4-6) in its Class 5A state opener Friday night with the winner advancing to play Fulton (9-1) or Lenoir City (5-5).
5. Who’s your sleeper team this postseason?
JESSE SMITHEY: If South-Doyle can get its act together, the Cherokees have a path to the Class 5A state quarterfinals — just like they did last year. In 2017, South-Doyle started 1-5 but found form late and ran to the third round, where they lost to Central 15-14. But this year, South-Doyle started 7-1 but lost its last two regular season games. It still should beat Tennessee High (7-3) on Friday and match up with David Crockett (10-0) in the second round. While Crockett has a quarterback in Cade Larkins, who’s thrown for nearly 3,200 yards and 36 touchdowns, South-Doyle has more FBS-caliber athletes and a hall-of-fame coach. Gaining confidence back in that first round will be key for the Cherokees, though. If their offense continues to struggle (6.5 ppg during Weeks 10-11), though, it could be an early exit.
DANNY PARKER: A rematch of the Week 11 Region 2-3A championship taking place in the 3A quarterfinals between Alcoa and Austin-East would not surprise me one bit. Obviously everybody and their momma will pick the Tornadoes to add a gold ball to the trophy case. And it’s not really going far out on a limb to say a No. 2 seed like Austin-East could make some noise. However, coach Jeff Phillips’ Roadrunners may have to go on the road to beat a region winner if they want to get to the quarters. I’d put my money on them being able to pull it off.
MIKE BLACKERBY: Catholic. Because of injuries, younger players have shouldered much of the load for the defending 5A champion Irish this season. But most of those banged-up players, including quarterback Jack Jancek, are back in the line-up.
That will pay huge dividends starting Friday against West in Round 1 of the playoffs as Catholic shoots for its fifth win in a row after starting 2-3.
Keep an eye on the Irish, who would likely meet Fulton in a Week 2 headliner if they get past West.
DAVE LINK: Rhea County (4-5) is no gimme against Oak Ridge (8-2) in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
Folks in the 5Star Preps coverage area remember Rhea County coach Mark Pemberton, who led Catholic to a 15-0 record and Class 3A state championship in 2008.
The Golden Eagles run the Wing-T offense – Pemberton’s signature over the years – and it’s not an easy task for Oak Ridge’s defense in the first round. The Wildcats better be ready.
The Rhea County-Oak Ridge winner gets the Clinton vs. Soddy-Daisy winner in the second round. I like Oak Ridge or Rhea County in the second round advancing to the state quarterfinals.