By Carey Phillips

Coming off its most wins since 1992, Smoky Mountain’s football team will open practice today (Thursday).

Players in grades 9-12 should report to the field house at 8:30 a.m., with practice starting at 9 a.m.

Middle school practice will start at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the high school.

Players will wear helmets the first two days of practice and add shoulder pads on days three through five. They will go to full gear and contact on the sixth day.

“I feel really good about the work our kids have put in during the off-season,” Coach Ricky Brindley said. “We’ve had some kids who have developed positive leadership skills. I also feel good about the personnel that’s coming back.”

The Mustangs were 8-4 in Brindley’s first season. That’s the most wins since the 1992 squad went 9-3. Entering his second year at the helm, a key difference is Brindley and the players now know each other.

“I think it provides a little bit more trust as far as me trusting them and them trusting me,” he said. “I care about them as individuals. I’ve developed relationships with them in the off-season. I think they trust what we do and what we teach.”

All nine starters on the offensive and defensive lines return, and they are all seniors.

“We’ve got all five starters back on the offensive line and all four back on the defensive line,” the coach said. “We think that should be the strength of our team based on their performance and skill level. They’ve proved they can be trusted under fire. We’re going to have to rely on them to move the chains or to bail us out of difficult situations.”

The returning offensive line starters include:

Wyatt Beasley, left tackle; Jackson Speir, left guard; Bengie Dillard, center; Clayton Frady, right guard; and Mason Fisher, right tackle.

Returning defensive line starters include:

Parker Flynn and Clayton Frady, defensive ends; Jacob Woody and Will Frady, defensive tackles.

The returning talent doesn’t stop with the line. Will Frady rushed for 1,261 yards last year, and junior Dustin Stephens had 1,014 yards of total offense. They both were named all-conference.

“We’ve got as good skill people as anybody in our conference,” Brindley said. “If we can do a good job as coaches getting them the ball, those two will be our workhorses. People will have to prepare to stop both of them.”

Also making all-conference last year were Flynn, Fisher and Clayton Frady.

“I feel good about our other weapons,” Brindley said. “Mitch Wike is going to be a tremendous receiver for us as well as Darian Bird.”

Wike is a senior, and Bird is a sophomore.

The coach said senior fullback Danner Hill will be called on to catch passes out of the backfield.

Junior Caleb Lominac is the front-runner entering practice to take over at quarterback.

“He has shown commitment and learned the offense this summer,” Brindley said. “We need him to make good decisions and take care of the football and let our offensive line and skill position kids make plays.”

Brindley said he expects about 30-35 players for the varsity and another 30 for the JVs. He said most of these have attended summer workouts.

“I think it comes down to are we going to be committed enough to the details Monday through Thursday to be successful on Friday,” the coach said. “If our kids become complacent or feel entitled because of some success we had, we’re going to pay a very big price.”

A home scrimmage with West Henderson is planned for Aug. 13 with a scrimmage at Rosman on Aug. 16 against an undetermined opponent.

The season will open Aug. 23 at home against Robbinsville.

“We’ve had some people in our community who have stepped up and done a lot helping our football program move forward,” Brindley said. “Whether it was manual labor or monetarily, it’s been really good to have our community step up and support our young people.”

The schedule is as follows:

Aug. 23 – Robbinsville; 30 – at Swain.

Sept. 6 – at Cherokee; 13 – Rosman; 20 – Madison; 27 – Tuscola.

Oct.11 – at Pisgah; 18 – Hendersonville; 25 – at Brevard.

Nov. 1 – at East Henderson; 8 – Franklin.

The JV schedule is as follows:

Aug. 22 – at Madison.

Sept. 5 – Enka; 12 – at Owen; 19 – at Madison.

Oct. 3 – Hendersonville; 10 – Pisgah; 17 – at Hendersonville; 24 – Brevard; 31 – East Henderson.

Nov. 7 – at Franklin.

The middle school schedule is as follows:

Aug. 29 – at Apple Valley.

Sept. 5 – at Rugby; 12 – at Canton; 19 – Bethel; 26 – Madison.

Oct. 3 – Waynesville; 10 – at Macon; 17 – playoff game.