By Kelly Hodge
It’s been a couple of decades since a Science Hill football team shaped up as well top to bottom heading into a new season.
That’s the delightful dilemma for fifth-year coach Stacy Carter and his staff this fall. Big things are expected from the Hilltoppers, who haven’t made it past the second round of the state playoffs since 1994, and everyone knows it.
Carter readily admits there’s a wealth of depth, speed and athleticism, particularly on offense, but he worries about chemistry and the intangibles of defending the Big Seven Conference championship. A coach has to worry about something, right?
“There is a lot of talent out there, and that can be a great thing or it can be scary,” said Carter, whose team opens its schedule Friday night at Elizabethton. “We still have to play together, care about each other, love each other, if we’re going to reach our goals. We have to be a team from start to finish.
“I think it’s always better to be the hunted than the hunter. I just hope we’re ready to take it a little further.”
The Hilltoppers went 9-3 last season, losing a couple of lopsided games in late September to mid-state competition, Siegel and Brentwood Academy, and then to Sevier County 63-20 in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. They surrendered 172 points in those three losses.
Considering the ‘Toppers averaged 42 points a game and return most of their playmakers, the onus is on the defense to get more stops this season.
“We’ve got a lot of good players over there, too,” says Carter. “We’ll be better.”
They figure to be challenged Friday night by Elizabethton and its outstanding running back Ethan Thomas. The Cyclones rolled past Daniel Boone 49-0 in their season opener, with Thomas rushing for 100 yards on just seven carries.
Returning seven starters on both sides of the ball, Science Hill lived up to its billing in the preseason with “wins” in scrimmages against Sullivan South, Dobyns-Bennett and Greeneville, three of the best teams in the area. The latter showcased the dynamic possibilities of the offense and quarterback Malik McGue.
The shifty 5-7, 160-pound senior ran 52 yards for one touchdown, caught a 54-yard pass for another and also threw a 12-yard scoring strike as the ‘Toppers prevailed 34-12 at Tipton Stadium. It seems like he’s a little bit of everywhere in Carter’s schemes.
“I like all of it,” said McGue, “but I guess the most exciting part is running the football. That’s when I feel like I’m most in control.”
McGue settled in as the starting QB as a junior, filling the big shoes of the departed Reed Hayes, and ended up being named Big Seven offensive player of the year. He finished with 2,452 yards of total offense and 28 touchdowns despite missing almost three full games with an injury.
It wasn’t a given last summer that the little quarterback would have that kind of success. But Carter wasn’t surprised.
“This time last year, we didn’t even know if he could throw,” said the coach. “We knew he was an exceptionally talented athlete and extremely smart. Malik watches a lot of film and even knows all the linemen’s blocking schemes; most high school quarterbacks don’t have a clue about that. He just gets it, definitely a high football I.Q.”
McGue has spent much of the offseason working on his passing. As a junior, he completed 53 percent of his throws, with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
“I have a lot more confidence now in throwing the ball,” he said. “There wasn’t much of an expectation on me to do that last year. I’ve worked hard this summer to get my arm stronger. We have a lot of receivers who can make plays, and it’s my job to get them the ball.”
The ‘Toppers do have options all over the field, and that includes quarterback. Junior Justin Bedard is an emerging threat who gives the offense a distinctly different look when he’s in there.
At 6-1 and 205, he runs more like a fullback and has a stronger arm than McGue. The two will certainly join forces on certain snaps, one way or another.
“Justin is a really good player, and we see a lot of the same stuff,” said McGue. “We have a good chemistry and work well together.”
The offense has another versatile weapon in senior Mikey White, who is a big target at 6-foot-2 and is also coming on as a runner. Others who could bring some flash to the spread sets are Marcus Patton (6-0, 170, Sr.), Jordan Holly (5-8, 140, Jr.), Elijah Mathes (5-11, 165, Jr.)and Malik Stephens (6-1, 180, Sr.).
Stephens averaged over 21 yards on nine catches last season, with three touchdowns, before suffering a shoulder injury.
The offensive line is a good one, anchored by left tackle Malcolm White. Now 6-6 and 270 pounds, the senior has added 20 pounds of muscle since last season and already has eight college scholarship offers in hand. He’s a hard guy to miss on the field.
Towering over the huddle, No. 55 sees plenty he likes.
“I think this offense can definitely be the best in the area,” said White. “We’ve got speed in the backfield, really good receivers, a big, strong line. I think we’re going to score a lot of points.”
Center Dylan Miles (6-1, 260, Sr.) is an all-conference player and may be the most physical guy up front. He’s flanked by guards Daniel Hill (5-9, 230, Sr.) and Kaihlen Jamison (6-4, 295, Jr.). Reece Fain (6-2, 229, Jr.) is the starting right tackle.
Carter says he’s intrigued by the potential of tight end Bailey Feathers, a 6-4, 240-pound senior playing his first year of varsity football.
“I told him, ‘You’re starting on a good football team, son,” said Carter. “He’s been a very pleasant surprise.”
The Hilltoppers may begin the season without two of their top defenders.
Senior linebacker Trey Sutton (6-1, 190), whom Carter calls “the best defensive player in the league,” has been on the mend since suffering a groin tear during a camp at Middle Tennessee State earlier this summer. He hopefully will be ready to play by the third game.
Sutton had 5 1/2 sacks last season and also flourished in limited duty as a running back, averaging a team-high 13.9 yards per carry.
The linebacking corps has also been missing Costa Kalogeros (6-0, 180, Jr.), who is out with concussion symptoms but expected back soon. The defense still has plenty of talent at the position with Stephens and sophomores Bryson Tolley (5-11, 200) and Cameron Hill (5-11, 200).
Mikey White and Mathis will be two-way starters — White at safety and Mathis at cornerback. Brandon Westmoreland (5-6, 165, Sr.) was an all-conference corner as a junior. Patton is a playmaker at safety.
The defensive line is showing promise, with the emergence of juniors Cameron Burress (5-10, 270) at noseguard and Quintin Alibocus (6-3, 280) at left tackle. Senior Chase Silvers (6-0, 225) is the starter at right tackle.
The Hilltoppers are blessed with strong kickers in Alex Rinella (6-1, 225, Sr.) and Adam Moorleghen (6-1, 170, Jr.).
At least “The Streak” isn’t part of the Science Hill narrative this season. The Hilltoppers went to Kingsport last October and ended Dobyns-Bennett’s 19-year dominance in the series with a 35-24 victory that wrapped up an unbeaten conference schedule.
“That was something that was a block for everybody, all the people in Johnson City,” said Carter. “All you heard about was the streak. We needed to get that off our plate and not worry about it anymore.”
The Indians, perennial conference champions, finished 6-5 and suddenly appear to be playing catch-up.
For the second straight season, Science Hill has to wait an extra week to get started, which means the Hilltoppers will run through the schedule without a bye week.
“We wanted to play in Week Zero but couldn’t find any games,” said Carter. “I kind of like having a bye in the middle, but there’s nothing we could do about the schedule.”
The Hilltoppers and their fans certainly won’t dwell on it. There are better things to be concerned about, like winning another Big Seven championship and going deep into the playoffs.
Carter seems to have the program poised to do so annually now.
“I think we’re going to be athletic and win a lot of games,” he said, “but we have to work on coming together. “The teams that do well are the ones with good relationships at the end. You have to stay with each other and be selfless, want your teammates to do as well as you. We want to be there as a team at the end.”