HUNTSVILLE — If you expect Scott High’s attitude to be impacted by what others expect of the Highlanders, you have another think coming.
After a couple of seasons of consistently proving naysayers wrong, Scott High is again picked by the Region 2-3A coaches to miss the playoffs in 2017. But that does not change the Highlanders’ workmanlike approach to the season.
“We’re building this team the same way we’ve built every other team,” said the Highlanders’ Keith Shannon, who is entering the sixth season of his second stint as the head coach in Huntsville. “We don’t give any thought or discussion (to what other people think). The thing we try to do is to control what we can control.”
With only a handful of starters returning on either side of the football, it might be forgiven if this proved to be a rebuilding year for the Highlanders. Shannon and his team shrug that notion off, as well.
“It goes back to something that (former Scott High principal) Sharon Wilson said a long time ago about Scott High School: The standard of success that we expect for our kids to achieve is constant,” Shannon said. “Regardless of what anybody else thinks about it, that’s what we’re going to strive for. The goals of our football program have never changed and never will. We expect to win games and we expect to go to the playoffs.”
And if the Highlanders again prove their doubters wrong in 2017, as they have several other times in recent years?
“It wouldn’t be the first time people have misprognosticated about our team, and it probably won’t be the last,” Shannon said. Then he reiterates: “Our drive is to be the best we can be, regardless of what other people think we can be.”
For Shannon’s program, the new reality is easy to sum up: The Highlanders have gone from a team hoping to make the playoffs to a team expecting to make the playoffs. That’s what happens when you advance to the postseason seven out of eight years.
Of course, much of the reason that run extended for years six and seven, after the aforementioned prognosticators expected it to end, was due to guys like Billy Hall, Hayden Byrge and JoBen Terry, among others. Those players are gone, having graduated in the spring. That means for Shannon and his staff, the motto is this: the year changes, and so does the personnel, but the goal does not.
Scott High fans will probably see the Highlanders turn to their ground game earlier on Friday nights this fall, and that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with new offensive coordinator Josh Terry. Rather, it has to do with adapting the offense to the strengths of the guys who are stepping into starting roles this season.
“We’re going to lean more towards running our offense from the inside out rather than from the outside in,” Terry explained. “Last year we spread teams out and then went into the run game. This year we have to find things that work in the run game.”
That starts with new quarterback Grainger Smith. The junior saw limited varsity action last season, playing behind Billy Hall — who is playing collegiate football at Reinhardt these days — and Trey Sellers.
“He’s going to do a lot more of the zone read scheme (than Hall did),” Terry said of Smith.
But that doesn’t mean Smith can’t throw the ball.
“He doesn’t have a bad arm,” Terry said. “It isn’t that he can’t throw, it’s just that we’re going to cater to what he does well.”
That means the 2017 Highlander offense might look a bit more like the 2014 Highlander offense, according to Shannon, with two-back sets that concentrate more on a power run game.
It might look new, but it really isn’t.
“Ninety percent of what we’re doing right now, we had in the offense last year,” Terry said. “Not much is going to change from a philosophy standpoint, it’s just trying to shift it to fit this group of kids, and a little bit of that happens every year.”
Backing up Smith at quarterback will be sophomore Alex Rector, while Daniel Hembree can also step in if called upon to do so.
Lining up in the backfield with Smith at the running back position will be Eli Hembree. The junior is still nursing a gimpy hamstring but his coaches hope he’s in for a breakout season after being limited by injuries as a freshman and a sophomore.
“He’s looked explosive at times, but we’ve been guarded with him as far as trying to keep the wear and tear on his hamstring down,” Terry said.
With Hembree somewhat limited by design, senior Tristen Henry has gotten more reps in fall camp. Terry likes what he has seen from his No. 2 man at runningback.
“He is a strong, decisive runner who gets downhill, and he’s also a decent blocker,” Terry said of Henry.
Dawson Branstetter, a junior, could also see some time at running back, offering more of a between-the-tackles threat for the Highlanders.
Scott High’s leading returner at receiver is Ryan Newport. The senior had several big moments in 2016, and will start at the X spot in 2017.
“He’s explosive, fast, and he runs good routes,” Terry said of Newport. “He also catches the football well.”
Junior Daniel Hembree will back up Newport.
On the opposite side, Brandon Pemberton — another senior — will line up at the tight end slot position. And when the Highlanders want to go a little bigger, they’ll stick in Anthony Hubbard, a senior who adds a little more size to the lineup.
Yet another senior, Mason Tucker, will hold down the Z receiver spot, offering Smith a big target. Backing him up will be sophomore Mason Owens.
Junior Andrew Hembree will round out the receiving corps at the B position, offering an explosive capability as he comes off a strong showing in spring practice. Competing with him for playing time is senior Isaac Morgan, who can also move to the slot position if the Highlanders go into a two-back set.
The offensive line will be anchored by senior Gannon Terry at center, although he will be backed up by fellow senior Caleb Vaughn, and both are likely to play. In fact, Josh Terry says the Highlanders “pretty much have two starters at center” as the season begins.
The left guard is Caden Byrd, a junior, who will be backed up by fellow junior Adrien Sexton. The left tackle is returning starter Wyatt Owens, a senior, who is backed up by Hubbard.
On the right side of the line, seniors Jace King and Issaiah Lawson will share playing time once everyone is healthy. However, King will likely slide over to tackle for at least the season opener at Clinton, as senior Heith Shannon is not expected to be back from an injury in time for the first game.
Scott High’s defense is mostly limited by the same factor as the offense: a loss of experience from 2016. The Highlanders return just three starters on the defensive side of the ball, but Shannon said it is not quite as alarming as it sounds.
“We played a bunch of kids meaningful time and got them some meaningful reps last year,” he said. “So even though we don’t have a bunch of starters back on defense, we have considerable experience.”
Anchoring the defense on the front line will be Vaughn, who is one of those three returning starters, at one tackle, along with Logan Lowe, another senior, at the nose guard position and sophomore Nathan West at the tackle position opposite Vaughn.
Shannon said his guys up front are mostly interchangeable, with each of them training at every position to develop depth.
Senior Austin Ayers was slated to start on the line but missed all of preseason with an injury. The Highlanders hope to have him cleared to play this week, and he will start working his way back into the lineup immediately.
Shannon said the injury to Ayers was unfortunate, but it has allowed some younger players an opportunity to get valuable reps in practice.
“We’ve just been playing with guys that were our twos, but they’ve played like ones in our scrimmage, so we’re really glad to get the chance to give them meaningful reps,” he said.
Providing depth on the line will be Hubbard, Sexton and sophomore Hunter Davis.
“The thing we like to do is keep the offensive linemen from playing too much defensive line,” Shannon said. “There will be a little crossover for depth and things like that but we like to limit their time.”
The outside linebackers, which are essentially hybrid defensive ends, depending on the set the Highlanders are using on any given week, will feature senior Caleb Wilson on the strong side and Henry on the will side.
It is at the outside linebacker position that the Highlanders might have their most returning experience on defense. Owens started some at strong-side outside linebacker last season but will move into a reserve role this year due to his importance on the offensive line. Shannon said Wilson has “had a great camp” as he moves into the starting role.
On the opposite side, Henry is a returning starter, but junior Nick Lay is pushing for playing time, and the Highlanders hope to be able to use fellow junior Trey Washam to provide depth, as well.
The strong-side inside linebacker will be Branstetter, with sophomore Justin Sanders backing him up. Branstetter is not listed as a returning starter, but he started both of Scott’s playoff games in 2016, when he became eligible after being ineligible in the regular season due to a transfer.
Opposite Branstetter will be Morrow, with Eli Hembree backing him up. While Hembree is listed as a linebacker, he can also move up to the defensive line, if needed.
“Our linebackers are kinda interchangeable, just to build depth,” Shannon said. “Branstetter has had an exceptionally good camp, and he’s really looked good at times versus the run game against tough schemes.”
In the Highlander secondary, senior Will Blakley will start at one corner, with sophomore Zack Sexton backing him up, while Owens will start at the other corner, backed up by junior Cody Emmons, who is battling an injury.
The strong safety will be Daniel Hembree, although Blakley and Washam can both play the position if called upon.
The free safety has been by committee in the preseason, with senior Kaleb Asberry and Rector at the front of the pack. “When the tread meets the road,” Shannon said, Smith is “an exceptional free safety,” but the Highlanders hope to avoid playing him there since, as Shannon said, “he is going to have his hands full on offense.”
Scott’s philosophy on offense will not be remarkably different from years past. As has always been the case, Shannon said, the defense will “not be married to one particular front.” Depending upon the opponent, they may play a 50 defense, a 40 defense, or some 4-4.
Shannon has liked what he has seen from his defense in fall camp. The Highlanders held Class 5A Seymour scoreless in one scrimmage and held their own against Rockwood in another. Against Anderson County’s high-powered offense, the Highlanders were able to get some stops and a couple of interceptions.
“We’ve purposely gone against some really physical offenses and they’ve done a great job standing up to double teams and holding their ground,” Shannon said of his defensive line. “I think our defense is a very, very competitive bunch.”
Blakley is a returning starter at place kicker and has knocked home field goals from as far out as 45 yards in warmups. Shannon said he expects Blakley to be able to hit the end zone on kickoffs on occasion this season, and the senior may be responsible for punting duties, as well. Mason Tucker is another option at punter. The long snapper will be Morrow, while Terry is the snapper for place kicks.