Oneida’s Tony Lambert looks at his team’s schedule, then at the team’s relative youth and inexperience, and shakes his head. His fellow Region 2-2A coaches picked the Indians to finish third out of five teams in what some might say is a relatively weak conference — a concept that’s somewhat foreign for a program accustomed to competing for championships.

With only seven of 22 starters returning, Lambert doesn’t fault anyone for writing off the Indians before the season has even begun. But he makes it clear: this year’s squad is one of his favorites.

“If you want to know how I feel about this football team, I love this team,” Lambert said. “I think this team is made of good people. Our kids, honestly, are a pleasure to coach.”

Lambert said off-the-field problems have been few and far between for his team during the off-season, with his players focused on putting in the effort in the weight room and in conditioning to become a better team.

“Here’s what we’ll get: We’ll get a good effort from these kids,” he said. “I love going to practice with this team.”

If there’s one word to describe the 2017 Indians — besides inexperience — it would be toughness. In fact, don’t let the lack of returning starters fool you: Oneida’s running attack this season could be the best it has been in years. And after a handful of scrimmages in fall camp, word is getting out amongst the Indians’ competition: if you’re going to stand toe-to-toe with this team, you’d better prepare yourself for a bruising.

“We’ve got a physical football team,” Lambert said. “We’ve tried to build this team on toughness because it’s the only way this team will survive. My expectations are this: We’re going to work as hard as we can work until the last day we’re playing. If we’ll do that, we’ll be able to look back and appreciate the season that we had, regardless of our record.”

Offense

They say that the best defense is sometimes a good offense. And with question marks all over the field on defense, especially in the secondary, Oneida is going to try to prove that old adage true this season.

“If they don’t have the ball, it’s hard to score,” Lambert said. “We’ve got to keep the ball, and we’ve got to finish drives.”

That philosophy isn’t anything new around a Lambert-coached program. He’s a defensive-minded coach, but he has also long relied on his offense to supplement his defense. Oneida’s approach under Lambert has always been ball control, field position and time of possession. In his mind, you win games by maintaining drives and winning the kicking game. That won’t change in 2017. In fact, with a young quarterback and no experience in the secondary, it will be especially crucial in 2017.

“Our lifeline is going to be running the football,” Lambert said. “That’s how you protect a young quarterback. That’s how you win time of possession. I don’t think the recipe for us has ever changed.”

Offensive coordinator Jimmy May echoes the head coach’s thoughts. For Oneida to be successful, May said, the Indians have to be able to maintain the ball and win time of possession.

“We can’t get in a track meet with anybody,” May said. “We have to do what we do well, and when we get a chance to score, we’ve got to take advantage and put points on the board. As long as you’ve got the ball and you’re moving it, they don’t have the ball.”

The good news, for Oneida, is if there was ever a year when it is especially important to play power football, slow the game down, and win by maintaining drives and controlling the clock, this year’s offense is built for just that.

Dalton Chambers, the newest addition to the Indians’ coaching staff, doesn’t mince words.

“I think we’re the deepest we’ve been at the running backs position for a long time,” Chambers said.

Those are strong words coming from any running backs coach. But when you pause to consider that Chambers was himself part of a strong stable of running backs at Oneida just two years ago, those words carry even more weight.

Couple the running backs — which include seniors Evan Roberts at tailback and Toby Hacker at fullback — with a strong offensive line, anchored by Division I collegiate prospect Logan Stephens, another senior, and you have the ingredients for a powerful running attack. Some folks even say it could be the best rushing attack Oneida has had since 2008, the year the Indians advanced to the Class A state semifinals.

Lambert doesn’t like the comparison, but he also isn’t afraid to say that he likes his team’s ability to run the football.

“I don’t want to compare teams and I don’t want to compare players, but I like the depth at the running back position behind the offensive line that we have right now,” Lambert said.

Back to the starters in the backfield, Chambers likes what he has seen from his guys in the preseason.

“Those two (Roberts and Hacker) have done everything we’ve asked them since they’ve been here,” he said. “If anybody deserves good things as seniors, it’s those guys.”

Then there is the depth that have the coaches glowing. Junior Matt Hood offers speed and ability when he relieves Roberts at tailback, and sophomore Bryson Buttram will also see plenty of carries after increasing his weight and strength during the offseason.

At fullback, juniors Johnny Manis and Josiah Bruns will back up Hacker, along with fellow junior Zack Couch.

So does Chambers really believe this year’s group of running backs are better than the group he was a part of two years ago?

“They have more God-gifted ability than we had,” he said. “I tell them that we didn’t have anybody who was 6-foot and 225 pounds. We didn’t have anybody that looks like Evan Roberts and can bench 225 pounds. Our one through three at the tailback position, I don’t think we drop off any.”

Of course, all the ability in the world in the backfield does not mean much without an offensive line to open holes, and that is another component of the 2017 Indian squad that has coaches excited.

Stephens, the Indians’ right tackle, generates most of the attention. The 6-4, 300-pound senior has already fielded two Division I scholarship offers and coaches scratch their heads when asked about the last Oneida player to enter his senior season as a true Division I prospect (although Cole West eventually signed with East Tennessee State, a Division I program).

Starting alongside Stephens at right guard will be either junior Tristen Seeber or sophomore Creighton May. Offensive line coach Billy Barnhart was especially pleased with May’s effort in a preseason scrimmage against Pigeon Forge.

“On the pull and kick counter play he just pancaked their defensive end twice. I told him it was some of the prettiest kick-out blocks I’ve seen in a long time,” Barnhart said.

On the left side of the line, senior Luke Manis will start at guard, while left tackle will go to either senior Jake Slaven or sophomore Logan Bell. Slaven is a returning starter, but Bell has been sharing reps in practice.

“They’re both working hard and we’ve got a little battle going there,” Barnhart said. “The competition is making them both better. Whichever one of them doesn’t start will be the second tackle, no matter what.”

At center will be junior Dakota Chambers, who is making a switch from guard.

“He’s done a great job for us in the preseason,” Barnhart said of Chambers. “He’s solid, and he’s a leader on the line. Our guys follow him and look to him for leadership.”

Providing depth on the line will be senior Tate Strunk at left guard, who is coming back from a meniscus injury, fourth-year senior Jacob Brown at tackle, and both Luke Jeffers and Sebastian Cecil at center.

The Indians will be without a four-year senior in Jonah Sexton, who suffered a meniscus tear and will miss his final year of eligibility. Barnhart said that is a blow to the team.

“We hate to lose him because the kids love him,” he said. “Jonah shows up and works hard every day and does everything you ask him to do.”

Starting at tight end will be senior Drew Crabtree, who made some big catches in the passing game last year and is also an effective blocker. He’ll be joined by two competent reserves, Will Barnhart and Ethan Sexton.

“One of the things the coaches told me when I started coaching was I was lucky because I have three experienced tight ends. And I do,” said Shawn West, who joined the Indians’ coaching staff this season and is responsible for the tight end position. “We’re going to run a lot of plays to our tight ends because they have the best hands on our team. These guys are true team leaders.”

In fact, to utilize the strength at the tight end position, the Indians plan to use plenty of double tight end sets this year on offense.

At the quarterback position, the Indians will be looking to replace a two-year starter in Logan Marlow and will turn to sophomore Elijah West. May said that West has improved tremendously since last year and is stepping up his game in fall camp.

“He’s made great strides,” May said. “He probably just needs to work on being more consistent in his passing game, but he’s managing the offense well.”

West will be backed up by another sophomore, Trace Sexton, who also plays wide receiver and is brand new to the quarterback position.

With West gaining his first varsity experience in fall camp, May said there will no doubt be some growing pains for the Indians at the quarterback position, but he’s confident that West will settle into the role.

“I told him that we’ll go as fast as he can go and as fast as he can grasp the offense,” May said.

When asked about his wideouts, receivers coach Robert Wright lists nine players he says are competing for playing time. Among them are Ben Lambert, Aaron Buttram, Tucker Manis, Josh Orick, Seth Cross, Eli Manis, Ryder Sexton, Joel Couch and Trace Sexton.

“They’re great workers, trying to improve their hands and trying to be great route-runners,” Wright said. “Let’s not kid anybody: For us, they’ll get snaps if they can throw good blocks. In our offense, that’s key in whether we get a 10 or 12 yard gain or whether we take it to the house. And our kids take a lot of pride in that.”

The Indians will be limited by youth at receiver. Cross is the only real varsity experience returning from last year, and is currently out with an injury, as is Manis.

“It’s an inexperienced group, but that is never going to be an excuse,” Wright said. “These guys have worked hard since January 5. They’ve gotten bigger, stronger, and I appreciate their attitude. They make it fun for me to come to work.”

Defense

The Indians’ strength on defense will be the interior of the line. While Lambert worries about his team’s ability to make stops on the edge or in the secondary, he also thinks it is going to prove tough for teams to run it between the tackles against his defense.

Junior Beau Phillips will start in the middle at nose guard, with Barnhart saying he’s “pleasantly surprised” in what Phillips brings to the table after getting stronger during the offseason.

“He’s improved tremendously,” Barnhart said. “He’s worked his tail off in the weight room.”

Stephens will start at tackle on the left side, though he’ll also sometimes line up at nose or right tackle to keep opposing offensive coordinators honest.

“We’ll move him around so they can’t say, ‘Okay, he’s playing on the left so we’re going to run to the right,’” Barnhart said. “He’s just a force. For the most part, in the scrimmages we’ve had, he has really dominated.”

Will Barnhart, the coach’s son, will start at the right tackle position after getting quality reps behind Dawson May last year.

“He’s improved week by week and he’s still improving,” Barnhart said of the oldest of his three sons. “Not only as his coach but as his father, I’m glad to see how he’s improving and getting better day by day.”

Oneida will use plenty of kids on the defensive line to provide depth and allow the offensive linemen to rest, and Barnhart said he does not feel like the quality drops off much as subs enter the game. Among the reserves will be Chambers and Luke Manis at nose, Slaven and Logan Bell at left tackle and Creighton May at right tackle.

“Those seven or eight guys will be in our main rotation on Friday nights, just keeping our guys fresh so they can be rested on offense,” Barnhart said.

On the ends will be Crabtree and Sexton, both of whom played a lot of snaps last year but have gotten bigger and stronger during the offseason.

“They’ve gotten themselves bigger and have worked extremely hard,” Wright said. “They’re tough enough to be good guys on the edge.”

Backing them up will be a combination of Matt Terry, Colby Boyatt, Josh Orick and Couch, and Wright said all four will get some snaps on Friday night. Bruns could see some playing time as well.

The linebackers will be Roberts and Hacker, who promise to be forces not just in the offensive backfield but on defense, as well. Chambers expects his guys to meet the challenges posed by opposing offenses this season.

“The changes I’ve seen in them, when they were young they were just playing really fast,” he said. “They had the intangibles and the physical ability to play but now they’re really starting to put it all together and mold as solid football players.”

Roberts is making a switch from end to linebacker, while Hacker was a part-time starter at linebacker last season.

Backing them up will be Johnny Manis, Seeber and Buttram.

“Top to bottom, I’ve got guys that are fighting,” Chambers said. “It’s awesome to watch. They don’t have a bad attitude. They come and they compete. And that’s a testament to Evan and Toby. They expect good things from this team and they take charge.”

The secondary is the real concern for Oneida, with almost no returning experience from last season. What little experience does return is senior Seth Cross, but he is currently recovering from an injury, after also being limited by an injury in 2016. He will be a starter when he returns, but the Indians do not currently have a timetable for his return.

With Cross out, Lambert will start at one corner while Bowling, a sophomore, will start at the other corner.

“Starters can change minute by minute,” May said. “There are a lot of them right there together, and we’re going to have to play a lot of guys anyway.”

May likes Lambert’s smartness, which he said overcomes the junior’s lack of size. Bowling, meanwhile, has the physical tools to be “a very good defensive back,” May said; he just has to gain the experience needed at the position.

Among other players who will play on the corner are Hood and a pair of freshmen — Jaden Luckadoo and Joel Couch.

The safeties will be Tucker Manis and Sexton, with freshman Colby Morgan showing plenty of promise. Sophomore Ryder Sexton and another freshman, Dakota Alcorn, could factor into the mix as well.

“That’s the most inexperienced group we’ve got, and they’re going to have to grow up in a hurry,” May said. “There are going to be six or seven of them that are going to have to play for us over the course of the season.”

Special Teams

Lambert always prides himself on special teams, and he said the Indians have made that a point of emphasis in the preseason. Morgan, a freshman, will slide in as punter, and he has big shoes to fill, replacing all-state punter Nash Lay, who is currently at the University of the Cumberlands. But Lambert said Morgan has the potential to be a great punter in his own right.

Battling for the starting role at placekicker are sophomores Rhemci Chitwood and Zac Hacker. Lambert said both are effective on extra point tries and both could play.

“I’m pleased with where they’ve come from in the spring to right now,” Lambert said of his kickers.

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Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.