By Carey Phillips
Smoky Mountain’s football team will open its season at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Cherokee at Carr Hooper Stadium/Babe Howell Field.
The game was originally set for Cherokee but was moved here due to construction on the Cherokee campus.
“We’ve still got a lot of things that we’ve got to get better at, but I do feel good about the progress we’ve made, particularly with some of our younger kids,” Coach Ricky Brindley said.
The Mustangs went 2-5 in the previous season, which was moved to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brindley was impressed by Cherokee quarterback Donald Bradley in last week’s scrimmage against Tuscola.
“It all starts with the quarterback,” he said. “He’s electric in the open field. He can make things happen with his legs. He’s got some good weapons to be able to get the football to.”
The Braves are coached by Dave Napert, who coached SM from 2011-15.
They use the I and spread formations on offense and show 4-3 and 3-4 looks on defense.
“I think they are good up front,” Brindley said. “They aren’t significantly deep, but the kids they’ve got are very good.”
The teams last played in 2019 when SM won 49-7. The Braves hold a 5-4 edge in the series.
Brindley saw some good things in Friday’s home scrimmage against Owen.
“We played hard on defense,” he said. “You don’t do a lot of preparation for an opposing team’s offense. For a scrimmage we flew around, and we tackled very well.”
He singled out Joe Hill for his play at linebacker.
“On offense we started out a little bit slow,” the coach said. “When it comes to running we didn’t finish blocks very well, but we got better as the scrimmage went on.”
He said Isaiah McNeely ran hard and Darien Bird “caught the ball well and did a lot of good things after the catch.”
Seniors Bird and Colin Crowe made all-conference last season in the 2-A Mountain Six Conference.
The Mustangs are moving up to 3-A and the Mountain Seven Conference, along with East Henderson, Franklin and Pisgah. North Henderson, Tuscola and West Henderson are remaining 3-A and moving from the Western Mountain Athletic Conference.
“I think it’s a fantastic conference,” Brindley said. “I think the parity will be there. We can all compete with one another.”
The probable starting lineup for Friday is as follows:
Offense: wide receivers, seniors Brylen Conlin and Darien Bird, junior Brett Richmond and sophomore Da’Mare Williams; quarterback, sophomore Jed West; running back, sophomore Isaiah McNeely; left tackle, junior Zeb Fisher; left guard, junior Tyler Bailey; center, junior Mabry Bumgarner, right guard, senior Britt Burch; right tackle, sophomore Grady Owen.
Defense: ends, juniors Antonio Lorenzo and Matthew Brown; tackles, senior Colin Crowe and junior Ryan Ashe; outside linebackers, senior Clayton Dillard and sophomore Joe Hill; middle linebacker, senior Nacoma Driver; cornerbacks, Bird and senior Max Buchanan; safeties Williams and sophomore Lincoln Sutton.
Special teams: placekicker, junior Zeke Long; punter, Bird; punt return, Sutton and Richmond; kickoff return, Williams; long snapper, Bumgarner.
Bird and Williams are the only two players listed as starters on offense and defense. Such a platoon system could keep the players rested as the game goes along.
“That’s what we want to be able to do,” Brindley said. “We hope we can get teams to the fourth quarter and wear them down.”
Assistant coaches include:
Jimmy Ashe, running backs; Zack Beck, defensive backs; Jerrod Boone, defensive coordinator; Zeb Capps, offensive line and head JV coach; Ty Dengler, quarterbacks; Daniel Melton, wide receivers; David Pressley, offensive line; Mike Vagnone, linebackers; Shane Williams, defensive line.
The schedule is as follows:
Aug.20 – Cherokee; 27 – Swain.
Sept. 3 – Roberson; 10 – at Robbinsville; 17 – Pisgah; 24 – West Henderson.
Oct. 1 – North Henderson (homecoming); 15 – at Franklin; 22 – Tuscola; 29 – at East Henderson.
The JV schedule is as follows:
Aug. 19 – at Asheville; 26 – at Franklin.
Sept. 2 – at Roberson; 16 – Pisgah; 23 – at North Henderson; 30 – at West Henderson.
Oct. 7 – North Buncombe; 14 – Franklin; 21 – at Tuscola; 28 – East Henderson.
The middle school schedule is as follows:
Aug. 26 – at Flat Rock.
Sept. 2 – at Brevard; 9 – at Canton; 16 – Bethel; 30 – Waynesville.
Oct. 7 – at Macon; 14 – playoff game.