Coach Hayden Chandley and the Pioneers are soon to answer that question following a 12-1 season that ended in a loss to eventual state champion Knoxville Central in the TSSAA Class 5A semifinals.
The Pioneers produced a Region 1-5A championship. Record-breaking quarterback Cade Larkins was a finalist for the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football award.
That’s all in the past, Chandley said.
“This is a different team and we’ve been preaching that to the team,” Chandley said. “The first few weeks of summer there was the entitlement. It was pretty typical teenager, but you have to get that out of them. Last year, we snuck up on some people. We’re circled on everyone’s calendar this year.”
Larkins, a 6-foot-3 senior, is back to lead the offense after setting Northeast Tennessee records with 3,979 passing yards and 42 touchdowns. He was the Times News/Johnson City Press Elite 11 football player of the year and the TN/JCP male athlete of the year after also batting .450 on the baseball diamond.
He has 8,183 career passing yards and is within a shot of the state record of 11,122, held by Trinity Christian’s Kyle Akin (2011-14).
Around Larkins are weapons such as receivers Donta Hackler and Prince Kollie and running back Ronquille Joyner.
“You look at the size, Donta is 6-3 and Prince is 6-2,” Chandley said. “Ronquille was a 900-yard rusher last year in a pass-happy offense. He gets overshadowed because we threw it so much. We’re able to do a lot of things on offense. We can chuck it deep or we can get it in those guys’ hands short yardage and get them to make a play for us. We’re extremely fortunate to have those guys back.”
Eric Dunbar lines up wide across from Hackler and Johnny Loyd is at tight end. Mason Britton, also the backup quarterback, is another big receiving target at 6-4.
Speaking of size, 6-8, 300-pound left tackle Blaine Greer, a senior, and 6-4, 285 junior Tony Davis head up the offensive line. Others in the mix include Caleb Hackler, Gabe Hendrix, Parish Combs, Tres Silvers and Jackson Warner.
“I told them it’s on you guys. If we can keep 1-6 on his feet, we like our chances,” Chandley said, referring to No. 16 Larkins. “We’ve challenged those guys. We have three guys with varsity experience. Everybody else is plugging those seams, but we have depth. Those guys will be playing on defense for us, too.”
Defense could be the biggest challenge after the loss of eight starters. The Pioneers pitched three shutouts among their 12 wins a year ago and gave up an average of 13 points per game.
Based out of the 3-4, the aforementioned offensive linemen are all two-way players.
Warner and Loyd are listed as inside linebackers instead of defensive tackles, and the outside linebackers include Michael Robinson, Kollie and Joyner.
The defensive backfield is athletic with Dunbar and Brayden Reid the starting corners. Hackler and Brenden Reid are safeties.
On special teams, Edison Gouge is penciled in for both kicking and punting duties. Kollie and Hackler head up the return game.
In Chandley’s second year, the playbook has nearly tripled in size.
“I watched that Week 1 film from last year and we ran about eight plays on offense, that was it,” the coach said. “This whole coaching staff has a year under our belts, the whole staff is back, we have six starters back on offense.
“The defense has been a little more of a challenge, but I like where we’re at.”
Aug. 23 Ooltewah
Aug. 30 Science Hill
Sept. 6 at Volunteer
Sept. 13 at Webb
Sept. 20 Cocke County
Sept. 27 at Sullivan Central
Oct. 11 at Cherokee
Oct. 18 Tennessee High
Oct. 25 at Daniel Boone
Nov. 1 Morristown East