School: Sullivan East
Coach: Ralph Nelson
2006 Record: 4-6, 2-5
Offensive starters back: 7
Defensive starters back: 3
BLUFF CITY — Rough and tumble football has become a big hit in the Sullivan East community since former University of Tennessee lineman Ralph Nelson arrived as coach.
Even though the Patriots aren’t quite where Nelson would like them to be, those seasons with only one or two wins are a thing of the past.
The Patriots have had records of 2-8, 4-6, 10-2, 5-5 and 4-6 over the past five years.
If the defensive unit matures in a hurry, the 2007 team should be competitive.
“Our defense was hurt more by graduation than the offense,” Nelson said. “We have a lot of holes to fill. Our offense has the potential to put up a lot of points. We have skill guys and running backs returning who could give us a chance to run downhill a little more.”
The real shiner is 6-foot-1, 175-pound junior quarterback Tyler Gaby.
“Tyler is very athletic and smart and he has a strong arm,” Nelson said. “He is learning to read the defenses better. For the first time we have a little depth at quarterback with sophomore Chase Depew behind him.”
Gaby was kept under wraps until the fourth game last season. While he recovered from surgery to repair a baseball injury, defensive end Chris Eads played the QB position. Gaby then unloaded on Volunteer.
Other top candidates on offense are center Mac Carrier, guards Brad Willis and Preston Frye, tackles Houston Eller and Rob Landore, tight ends Jeremy James, Cody Harrington, Zane Campbell and Andy Street, wide receivers Matthias Maines, Dillon Faver, Kody Dowell and Jarred Tate, and running backs A.J. Roberts, Caleb Looney and Tyler Crowder. The multitalented Crowder also does the kicking.
“With the depth we have at running backs, we expect a real battle for starting positions,” Nelson said. “We operate from two different sets, so all three should be regulars.”
All-conference wideout Chris Colley graduated but another all-conference selection, Maines, is ready to take his place as the team’s top downfield threat.
Maines, Crowder and Corbett Bawgus return to lead the Patriots’ defense, a base 3-5 scheme. Chalked in for prime time are Campbell, Street and Landore at the tackles, Bawgus at middle linebacker, Crowder and Joey Owens at outside linebacker, Roberts and Looney at strong safety, Dowell at free safety and Maines and Faver at linebacker.
“We’ve got a real good shot at the playoffs,” Nelson said. “We’ll have to take care of business in the middle of the pack. We must have confidence to beat those middle teams. We have a great group of sophomores.
“The Mountain Lakes Conference has evolved over the last five years. Everybody in the conference throws the ball now and a defense must be prepared to cover wide receivers all over the field. There was a time when most of the teams primarily ran the ball.”
A special flavor has been added to one of East’s rivalries. Ralph’s brother, Scott, is the new coach at Sullivan Central. He had been Ralph’s assistant for five years.
“It’ll be a friendly rivalry,” the East coach said. “We’ll still meet on Thanksgiving Day and eat. I doubt if we’ll have very many surprises for each another on the field.”
The East coach sees Sullivan South as the conference favorite, with Tennessee High posing the biggest challenge to the Rebels.