By Carey Phillips

 

Almost 15 months after it last played a game, Smoky Mountain’s football team will begin practice for its COVID-19 delayed and shortened season Monday.

The session will be for players in grades 9-12 and will start at 3:30 p.m.

Under N.C. High School Athletic Association conditioning rules, contact cannot start until Feb. 13.

“We’ve had to be extremely flexible in what we’ve done and how we’ve done it,” Coach Ricky Brindley said of offseason workouts during the pandemic. “We’ve had to work twice as much in terms of splitting up the kids in what would normally be a one group session.”

The coaches and players are happy to get back to some level of normalcy.

“It is extremely exciting to be able to do something that we enjoy and something that we love,” Brindley said. “That goes from a coach’s perspective as well as a player’s perspective. Some of them have been able to be mature enough to see the big picture and continue to grind even when they didn’t know what was going to be allowed.”

Heading the returnees is senior Dustin Stephens. The all-conference player rushed for 1,552 yards and had more than 2,000 yards of total offense last season.

“Dustin has done a really good job of continuing to step up his leadership,” Brindley said. “He’s going to be asked to do a lot in the huddle and on the field. He’s going to have to get tough yards at times. He’s going to have to make explosive plays for us at times.”

The coach said he feels the team has weapons on the perimeter other than Stephens. They include junior Darien Bird and sophomore Brett Richmond as wide receivers.

Senior Chris Wilburn is likely to start at quarterback.

“He gives us a really good running threat, but he also has shown glimpses of being able to push it down the field very well with his arm,” Brindley said.

The offensive line was hit hard by graduation, but the coach is optimistic about those stepping into starting roles. The line will be anchored by junior Collin Crowe, who was all-conference last season.

“The defense is going to be a work in progress in terms of figuring out the pieces to the puzzle and how we can be the most successful,” Brindley said. “We’re going to be playing some kids on defense who have no varsity experience. That’s due to necessity, but also due to them having very good potential.”

The Mustangs went 8-4 in 2019 and were tri-champions of the Mountain Six Conference. It was the program’s first league title since 1992.

“This team has the potential to be very successful if they will continue to come to practice every day with the mindset of getting better,” Brindley said.

With a reduced playoff field, it’s likely that the only way to qualify for the postseason is to win the conference championship. That makes the five league games, three of which will be at home, even more important than usual.

“The team that can refocus every week and not rest on the success of the prior week is the team that will be able to sustain success throughout the conference season.” Brindley said. “One slip up mentally or a loss of focus can be devastating to your playoff hopes.”

A home scrimmage against Robbinsville is set for Saturday, Feb. 20, with a tentative start time of 1 p.m.

The season will open Feb 26 at Madison. The first home game is March 5 against Mitchell. The MSC opener is March 12 at home against Pisgah.

The schedule is as follows:

Feb. 26 – at Madison.

March 5 – Mitchell; 12 – Pisgah; 19 – at Hendersonville; March 26 – Brevard (homecoming).

April 2 – East Henderson; 9 – at Franklin.