In the famous words of former University of Tennessee radio broadcaster John Ward, “It’s football time in Tennessee” – at the high school level that is. Tullahoma will officially open the 2019 season with a trip to Shelbyville Central on Thursday.
Last season, the Wildcats put together an impressive 10-3 record, even advancing to the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Playoffs. Tullahoma saw its season end there with a 6-2 loss to fellow Region 4-4A opponent Maplewood.
However, the Wildcats lost their 2018 season opener, a 31-13 home matchup against Shelbyville. Following that loss to start the 2018 campaign, the Wildcats went on to put together an eight-game win streak. THS Head Coach John Olive said he knows what type of Shelbyville team will be awaiting him this coming season.
“They whipped us last year,” Olive said. “I mean offensively, defensively, line of scrimmage, linebackers, secondary, whatever way you want to go, they whipped us. They’re a good football program … we’ll have our hands full. They’ve got speed and they’ve got physicalness.”
For Shelbyville, it returns its leading rusher in Caleb Marsh this season. As a junior last year, Marsh ran for 1,213 yards and 12 touchdowns on 194 carries. Against the Wildcats last year, Marsh had a field day, running for 214 yards on 22 carries, an average of 9.7 yards per carry.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Golden Eagles return two key players, in Dorvante Swader and Gary Smith III. Swader was second on the team in tackles with 96 on the year, while Smith had 65.
Tullahoma had several players graduate from last season, but at the quarterback position, Ben Fulton returns for the Wildcats, as he gets set to enter his senior year. Backing up Fulton will be Ryan Scott and at third string quarterback will be Connor Partin.
During the preseason, both Fulton and Scott have looked solid, including combing for a 179 passing yards against Columbia during a 19-6 win in the Wildcats’ final preseason scrimmage on Aug. 14. Fulton completed nine of his 12 pass attempts for 142 yards and two touchdowns, while Scott connected on all four his throws for 37 yards.
As a junior last year, Fulton passed for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns, while being intercepted 11 times. Fulton also connected on 63 percent of his targets, completing 131 of his 208 pass attempts.
Most of Fulton’s top targets last year graduated. Although, returning for the Wildcats are a few players who received an ample amount of playing time as juniors. Included in that list are Hunter Palmer, Jake Hollandsworth and Hunter Jewell.
Palmer reeled in 24 catches last year for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Hollandsworth had 15 receptions for 169 yards and a touchdown. Jewell had 10 catches for 132 yards.
In the preseason win over Columbia, Palmer had four catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Jakobe Thomas and Quintin Howard could also play big roles for Tullahoma at the receiver positions. As a sophomore, Thomas had four receptions for 70 yards and two touchdowns, while Howard had one catch for 13 yards.
Three sophomores could also play roles for the Wildcats at the receiver position. Joe Duncan, Jacob Dixon and Brody Melton are all listed as second-string wide outs.
Brian Nelms will be Tullahoma’s first-string running back when the season gets underway. He carried the ball six times in the Wildcats’ final scrimmage, running for 35 yards. As a junior last year, Nelms had 24 carries for 90 yards.
Devlon McGee and Chris McCreary will be backing up Nelms at the running back spots. According to Olive, both McGee and McCreary have improved significantly since the start of the preseason.
Tullahoma returns a young offensive line this coming year and at the center position will be junior Tydrell Mitchell. Sophomores Ian Poe and Cadden Bradford are listed at the guard spots, while Garrett Harris could also play at the guard spot and currently listed as a second-string guard.
At the tackle spots, Logan Crouch and Jalin Newson are slated to occupy those positions.
Last year, the Wildcats’ defense became its anchor of the team, averaging opponents to score just 14.9 points per contest. Tullahoma held its competition to nearly an average of 260 yards per game, while additionally forcing 29 turnovers on the year, intercepting 18 passes, while recovering 11 fumbles.
After losing several key players on the offensive side of the ball from last season, Olive said he expects the defense to once again be the key to get the Wildcats going this year.
“This is not going to be an offense that can overcome mistakes,” Olive said. “A first and 20 could be deadly to us this year. So, on the offensive side of the ball, we’ve got to be able to put together eight to 10 positive plays before a negative play. You can’t have a quarterback get sacked. You can’t have a bad snap … last year, if we had a bad snap that was not really any big deal, because we had four or five people out on the field that at any moment could go 40, 50 or 60 yards.”
The offensive and defensive line will share players this coming year. According to Olive, all of the offensive lineman need to be two-way players and will be used on the defensive side as well.
In the secondary, Howard, Palmer and Landon Foutch are expected to occupy the corner positions. At safety, Thomas, Cooper Lawson, Dixon and Will Partin are listed in those spots.
Jacob Floyd, Justin Scott and Cayden Tucker are slated to play the inside linebacker positions. Jewell and Hollandsworth could play on the outside linebacker spots. Melton is listed as linebacker, however, the coaching staff is still trying to decide between having him at the inside position or on the outside.
Two seniors lead the defensive ends this year, as Nelms and Nic White are the top two players at those spots. Tyreek Nard, Newson and Ethan Anderson are players who have also worked hard at the positions.
In the special teams unit, Will Stone will be the Wildcats’ punter this coming year. Justus Chadwick is listed as Tullahoma’s primary kicker. Matt Marcel could also be used as a kicker or punter for the Wildcats this coming year.
Kickoff for Friday night’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. For those who can’t make it out on Friday, it will be broadcast by 101.5 FM The Rooster.
The News will also be providing live scoring updates on social media. To see those updates, like The Tullahoma News Sports Page on Facebook, or follow sports editor Zach Birdsong on Twitter, @ZachBirdsong.