By Trey Williams
You’d never know Science Hill football coach Stacy Carter is faced with the task of replacing eight defensive starters, his quarterback, three leading receivers, three offensive linemen and kicker.
Carter reloads instead of rebuilding at Science Hill, where he’s won at least nine games for four straight years. The Hilltoppers’ last nine-win season prior to Carter’s arrival was in 1994.
Still, losing the likes of receiver Elijah Mathes (East Tennessee State), quarterback Justin Bedard (Cornell) and linemen Quintin Alibocas (Chattanooga), Cameron Burress and Reece Fain (Carson-Newman) will have to cause growing pains. Leading receiver Tyrek Perkins is also gone, as are the top cornerback, Davi White, and linebackers Brett Marcus (Case Western Reserve University) and Zach Kanady.
But Carter sees an opportunity to have a physical team with a balanced, ground-oriented offense and a defense led by linebackers Bryson Tolley and Nakiya Smith and lineman Chad Gage, which could keep the victories coming for a program trending in the right direction.
Junior quarterback Jaylan Adams (5-10, 150), running back King Russell (5-11, 205, Sr.) and versatile skill player Colby Martin (6-0, 190, Sr.) provide a good foundation of athleticism.
Russell rushed for 769 yards and seven touchdowns last season in his first year after transferring from Dobyns-Bennett, and seemed to get stronger throughout the season. Martin averaged 8.1 yards while rushing for 243 yards and two TDs and averaged 20.1 yards per reception. Two of his 18 catches were for touchdowns.
And Adams looked good last year in a backup role that included playing nearly the entire game against Daniel Boone and a lot during a win at Hardin Valley. Adams rushed for 148 yards and a TD, and was 16-of-23 passing (69.6 percent) for six touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Running the ball, Jaylan is very, very good for us,” Carter said. “He’s doing a super job. … He looked good throwing it in 7-on-7 (this summer), too.”
Adams is wearing Steve Spurrier’s No. 11. He’s also the son of another Science Hill Hall of Famer, Gary “Shorty” Adams, who is also the Hilltoppers’ running backs coach. Jaylan said being “Shorty’s son” can increase pressure if allowed, something he’s learned while simply introducing himself.
“When I see people out and they ask me my name and I tell them,” Adams said, “they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re Shorty’s son.’ And they’re like, ‘We’re expecting great things out of you.’ I try not to put too much (pressure) on me, so I can just play my game and do what I can do.”
Senior Jake Blankenship also looked good throwing the football in the offseason. Tate Overbay could be their top target at wideout.
“I can definitely see Tate Overbay having a breakout season this year with his height and ability to go up and get the ball,” Tolley said. “He will be hard to stop.”
Smith, who already has quite a few Division I college offers, also plays tight end. Seven of his 10 receptions last year were touchdown catches.
Adams and Carter also noted receivers such as TJ Patton, Aundre Butler and John Parker Epps.
The offensive line includes center Austin Cox (5-10, 300), Trey Gasteiger (6-1, 267, Jr.) and sophomores Tre’ Stuart (6-4, 295), Blake Austin (6-4, 270) and Kendrick Fain (6-2, 273). Chad Gage (6-0, 265, Sr.) is the ‘Toppers’ most experienced defensive lineman.
Tolley’s generated college interest after piling up an impressive 147 tackles last season, more than the combined total (134) of Science Hill’s second- and third-leading tacklers, Marcus and Kanady.
Tolley said replacing eight starters on defense is tough, but he’s cautiously optimistic about maintaining the standard.
Fellow linebacker Cameron Hill (6-1, 228, Sr.) had an impressive sophomore season before sitting out last year. Coaches and teammates are quick to note his physicality and overall potential.
Outside linebacker Denzel Medina (6-2, 190, Jr.) has also generated a buzz and running back-linebacker Arthur James (5-6, 157, Jr.) is proven. Tolley mentioned defensive linemen Avery Conkin (6-3, 217, Sr.) and Jesse Cross (6-0, 260, Jr.) having good fall camps, too.
“Avery Conkin, Jesse Cross, Denzel Medina and Nakiya Smith have all looked really good and will be the deciding factors on how well our defense will really be,” Tolley said. “It all starts up front. … I think it will be a very difficult task knowing I don’t have big Q (Alibocas) and Cameron Burress holding off blockers in front of me, but I believe in the guys that have replaced them and I know they will do their job.”
Tyrique Price (5-9, 165, Sr.) is an experienced cornerback in a secondary that’ll include Martin, a returning starter, and Tristan McPeak (5-11, 159 Jr.) at safety and Hayden Hillman (5-11, 190, Sr.) at cornerback. Swift sophomore Ahmik Watterson (5-10, 179) should play a lot of snaps in the secondary.
Another sophomore, Quinn Boyle, is expected to be the kicker and punter.
Science Hill has what appears to be a challenging opener at Elizabethton Friday. It should be strength against strength with Science Hill’s power running game and the Cyclones’ defensive line.
“I have a ton of respect for Coach (Shawn) Witten and the (Elizabethton) team,” Tolley said. “They are always an extremely physical bunch. With the way the conferences are set up now, it is nice to compete against really good local teams. When you play against teams like the Cyclones who play hard every down and compete until the final whistle, it reflects on their coach and how they have been trained. For that reason I think both of our teams are well represented with coaching staffs.”
Carter expects the Hilltoppers to keep on keeping on.
“I think we’re gonna be pretty good running the football; I mean, I really do,” he said. “I think we’re gonna be hard to stop.
“And then we’ve got a good enough athletic quarterback to run … and throw. It’s gonna be a different team, of course, but it should be very effective. … I can just say at this stage we’re pretty good running the football, probably better than we have been.”