KINGSPORT — This year, Sullivan South’s football program drops from Class 5A to 4A and joins a new league in the process.
Rebels coach Sam Haynie sees the Rebels’ new milieu as a great opportunity, but by no means an easy climb to the top rung.
“I would be lying to say we’re not excited about the new league. But we’ve taken a deep breath, so to speak,” said Haynie, whose squad concluded its 5A membership with a 28-14 playoff loss to Columbia Central in last year’s postseason.
“Initially, when you drop down people automatically think it will be easier. I think it could be easier from a number of standpoints, but I don’t think it will be easier in terms of competition,” he said.
“We know there are challenges in this league like any other. There are good football programs here. Elizabethton and North are programs as good as anyone has had around here.”
The Cyclones share South’s 4A classification. The Golden Raiders are vying for a 3A playoff berth. All three Three Rivers Conference teams have high hopes for a second season. The Rebels make no secret of wanting to win the first season first.
“There are a lot of good players in this league and we can’t take anybody lightly,” said linebacker Kyle Bond. “We want to get our name up there as conference champs.”
The Rebels, who posted a 5-5 finish last season, return only eight bona fide starters from the 2012 campaign. On offense, that would be Evan Headrick, Christian Comsa, Dalton Johnson and Cody Shipley.
Given that the 6-foot-4, 290- pound Shipley is playing defense exclusively at the outset, that means no starters return to the offensive front. Seniors Bradley Harris (5-11, 200), Austin Jones (6-1, 220), Bond (6-1, 215) and Caleb Johnson (6-2, 185) and junior Austin Beard (6-1, 195) look to fill out this year’s front five, tackle to tackle.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors on the offensive line, but not a lot of experience,” Haynie said. “These guys are trying to learn and mesh together as a unit.”
Headrick and Comsa combined for more than 800 receiving yards last season (Headrick was second in the former Big 8 Conference with 35 catches) and Dalton Johnson is expected to be a big boost to the receiving corps.
Juniors Dylan Wieger (6-2, 200) and Josh Booker (5-11, 160) are vying to fill the spot vacated by veteran quarterback Charlie Moore. Wieger, who is also a strong punter, likely gets the start.
Booker, also getting his reps at QB, should factor as a receiver 75 percent of the time.
“We’ve thrown a lot in the offseason. We’ve put in a couple new routes and have been working at it every day trying to get connections between quarterbacks and receivers,” said the 6-4, 190-pound Comsa. “I feel really good about it.
“We should have a really good passing season this year.”
Juniors Blake Christian (5-11, 175) and Jacob Strickler (6-1, 185) both have limited experience at running back, but Haynie has a lot of confidence in their abilities.
“We’re as athletic as we’ve been in a while,” Haynie said. “Right now our strength would be our athleticism and what needs to be worked on is getting better in the line.”
The Rebels return with an odd-front base defense, anchored by the massive Shipley at nose guard.
“He’s a big kid in there. This year he’s stronger and more athletic,” Haynie said.
“He’s been a load for us to handle in practice, so we hope he can attract some double teams and free up our linebackers.”
Harris and Jones move in at the down ends. Strickler returns at one of the outside linebacker spots with Tommy Morris (6-4, 195, Jr.) moving in at the other.
Bond returns at inside linebacker and is joined by counterpart Hunter Haren. Comsa brings veteran perspective to free safety, while Booker and Christian at the corners and 6-4, 185- pound Will Blair rounds out the secondary at strong safety.
Soccer crossovers Brad Burdine and Luke Wood give the Rebels some options at placekicker.