GATE CITY — Last season, Gate City won only two football games. That is quite an anomaly.
Here is another one: The Blue Devils’ opponents scored an average of 41.2 points per game against them.
Gate City coach Bill Houseright is convinced the second anomaly had the greatest bearing on the first.
“Overall, we’ve got to play defense. We’ve got to find some hammers over there,” Houseright said.
“I don’t care if we score 25 or 30 points a game. We want to go out and score seven points and not worry about it,” he added. “We’ve got to get better defensively.”
Gate City’s offense averaged a little more than three touchdowns a game during the second half of the 2012 season. The Blue Devils ought to be capable of considerably more than one per outing this go-round.
But Houseright has a point. Successful Gate City football teams traditionally excel at cutting off opponents’ water. Last year’s team didn’t.
“It wasn’t due to the kids. We were getting better in spots and the next thing you know, that spot is gone we had to move somebody else in there,” Houseright said.
“Defensively we’re at Level 1. We don’t know which of these 58 young men are going to be where.”
Preseason competition for linebacker positions was so wide open Houseright declined to single out any returning starters or candidates. He acknowledged that Neth Gardner and Michael Collier are good bets to return to the secondary, although the 6- foot-2 Collier has beefed up to a lean, linebacker-ish 200 pounds.
Key contributors to defensive front are easier to project. Senior Avery Rhoton (5-10, 207) and junior Nick Mann (6-0, 235) are working some at down tackle. Lex Reed (5-9, 167, Sr.), Rusty Vaughn (5-10, 201, Sr.) and veteran Brandon Minton (5-10, 174, Jr.) have shown up capably at defensive end and in down spots.
“Our front depends on if we want to go big or go quick. We have a whole lot of different varieties,” Houseright said. “We won’t be massive, but we can go with decent size when we need to.”
Similarly, the offensive interior has sorted itself out. Keener Burke (5-11, 230, So.) returns at center, Rhoton is back at guard and Mann returns at tackle. Junior James Jenkins (6-1, 280) played some at tackle last year. Seniors Michael Livesay (5-9, 216) and Austin Hensley (6-1, 196) are both working out at guard.
So far, the unanswered questions on the offensive side of the football are merely a good problem to have.
No fewer than six players are being considered for the quarterback position held by the graduated Nick Bowen, a three-year starter. All of them also could factor as playmakers elsewhere on the field.
Collier, who is also a solid punter, is the most advanced at that position, having started three games last year. But with nearly 50 catches for almost 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns to his credit, he proved a terrific asset as a receiver.
Gardner (5-9, 154, Jr.), Caleb Herron (5-9, 161, Jr.), Wesley Byrd (5-8, 140, Jr.), Isaac Salyer (5-9, 152, So.) and Hunter Collier (6-0, 171, Fr.) could factor in the scheme as signal-callers, pass catchers or rushers. In addition, Gardner, Byrd and Herron are soccer crossovers who’ll figure into the kicking game.
There are other promising running backs, including veterans Evan Baker and Robbie Hicks. The latter of the two got off to a solid start early but had his season shortened by a concussion. He has since been cleared to play.
“We have got a lot of possibilities, which is a good thing. We’ve got a lot of people who are pretty quick and agile and can do some things and move in space,” Houseright said.
The Blue Devils have a brutal non-district schedule leading up to their challenging Mountain District slate. In the past, the season as a whole figuratively has meant more to Gate City than a district championship. Now, that’s literally true with power points alone determining fitness for the playoffs.
“The district really doesn’t matter to us. Every game is what matters,” Houseright said.