East Ridge’s talented senior JoJo Tillery looked like a young professor Thursday afternoon at the District 6-AA football media day at Finley Stadium.
It must have been the horn-rimmed glasses.
Tillery’s persona – that of a true student-athlete – is something he’s happy to deal with.
“I’m the geek on the team according to my teammates,” Tillery said. “They’re always asking me to help with their homework. I’m a good student and I try to take advantage of that on the field.”
A dual-threat player for coach for coach Tracy Malone, Tillery is one reason the Pioneers were tabbed serious title contenders for the district championship in 2014 after finishing tied with Tyner for second place last season.
The Pioneers were picked to finish second by media representatives at the 2-hour press session and coaches had East Ridge and Hixson sharing the top spot in their balloting.
Six of the seven schools attended Thursday’s event. Tyner chose not to participate. The media picked the Rams to win this year’s title and coaches placed coach Wayne Turner’s Club third.
Tillery is a skilled quarterback and defensive back, but said he’s surrounded by several other players that possess the talent to push the Pioneers toward the top of the district standings.
“We have six receivers that have been playing since their freshman seasons,” he said. “They know the system well and we have a lot of running backs back this year. We have some speed and I hope we can utilize that to our advantage if we get them in the open field.”
The two receivers Tillery will be looking most frequently to grab passes he throws during the season are wide receiver Seth Vaughn and tight end Darius Moore – and with good reason.
Vaughn is one of the fastest players in the district and Moore has a pair of hands that seem to ooze glue.
“He’s never dropped a pass I’ve thrown to him,” Tillery said. “No matter where I put the ball he’s going to go get it. He’s tall, lanky and muscular and just never drops a ball.”
As for Vaughn’s deep-ball threat, Tillery said, “If he gets past a defender I’m automatically looking for him.”
Tillery was the Pioneers’ starting free safety his freshman season and earned a starting offensive job the next season and is hopeful that wealth of experience can lead the Pioneers to their lofty goals for the season.
“I hope my senior year will be my best year in school and on the football field,” he said. “I’d like for East Ridge to win the district, host our first playoff game and make it to at least the second round, something else that East Ridge has never done.”
Like Tillery, Hixson quarterback Preston Wilkey is carrying a sizable weight on his shoulders when it comes to an offense achieving a solid portion of success.
Wilkey, who played sparingly behind Gill Brown in 2013, also is dealing with a new offensive scheme – the mind-testing read option.
“Last year,” Wilkey said, “we basically just handed the ball off and pounded the defense. This year there are a lot of decisions I’ll have to make on every play. That’s a lot of pressure and I’m trying to understand the offense and learn the reads I will have to make. I’m not really worried about it.
“It has really been easier than I expected. As a quarterback, you need your brain and luckily I’ve got one. Thinking on the fly and making sure the timing is right is the most difficult part.”
The Wildcats, with Dan Duff taking over for departed coach Jason Fitzgerald and bringing his split-back veer offense with him, are the defending 6-AA champions and won five of six league games a year ago and reached the Class 4A quarterfinals before losing to Knoxville Catholic, 14-13.
Hixson averaged 27.2 points in nine 2014 wins, but its offensive production dipped to 11.2 points in the four losses.
Wilkey is hopeful the new offense provides the Wildcats with more scoring opportunities in tight ballgames. For that to happen, however, the offensive line will have to step up big-time.
“We have to have the offensive line make sure they know the blocking schemes and everything else about the new offense,” Wilkey said. “It’s a totally different offense. I think we can do it. We won the district last year and we want to win it again. We’re going to compete hard and we’re not going to fall off because we lost 20-something seniors and got a new coach.”
Wilkey is working with his third different head coach in four years, but understands the comings and goings of coaches.
“We were sad that coach Fitzgerald left because we got attached to him,” Wilkey said. “But he had to make a decision that was best for his family. Coach Duff is a great guy. He expects us to work hard and get better. That’s what we’re doing.”
Central linebacker/tight end Jamel Metcalf, a 6-foot, 220-pound senior, said a big difference in last year and this for the Purple Pounders can be summed up in one word – commitment.
The Pounders, under new coach Ryan Mallory, who replaces the oft-moving John Allen (he’s now at Powell), are flourishing under a new atmosphere around the program.
“For the first three years I was at Central, I don’t think we were much of a team,” Metcalf said. “Everybody was playing for the individual and that was very frustrating. I believe now that everyone is committed and dedicated to the team.”
And that commitment, Metcalf said, begins at the top with Mallory and his staff.
“This staff is remarkable,” Metcalf said. “They all care about you at school and away from football. They want to know about our home life. Coach Allen cared and was there, but these coaches are doing more. They pick you up at home if you need a ride. They take you home from practice. When you need something they’re a phone call away and that’s great for all the players.”
Metcalf, who points to several players returning for their second or third year with the Pounders, who went 5-6 last year and lost to Sequoyah in the first round of the playoffs, said the team chemistry has shown significant improvement since Mallory was given the job after KiJuan Ware accepted and then reneged on his decision in a matter of days.
In his time with the media, Mallory pointed to Metcalf as one of the team leaders and Metcalf isn’t about to shy away from that responsibility.
“They tell me I’ve been here four years and I’m a veteran,” Metcalf said. “I started as a freshman at the age of 14 and now I’m 17. I’ve seen it all and done it all. I know what it takes to win and I can help the younger guys.
“All we have to do is win some games. I think we can be district champions if we execute at a high level and stay with the team concept. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Howard’s offensive/defensive tackle Tadarius Covington is part of perhaps the biggest offensive line in the area.
New Tigers coach Mark Teague, who was an assistant last season at East Ridge, said he won’t have a starter across the front weighing less than 315 pounds.
The 6-foot-2-inch Covington, a sophomore, said a few minutes later he tips the scales at 320 pounds.
Expect the Tigers, who lost nine of 10 games in 2013, to line up and dare defenses to stop the team’s rushing attack.
“They can’t stop us,” said the confident Covington, who started both ways as a freshman. “We’re going to blow them right off the ball.”
To better handle the two-way grind, especially in the early season heat and humidity, Covington and his teammates are “running the stadium” every day to increase their stamina.
Brainerd inside linebacker/running back Marcus McMillan says the Tigers have come a long way under second-year coach Brian Gwyn, who could not attend Thursday’s media day – assistant Tyrus Ward filled in for him.
“We’ve got a lot of starters coming back (from last year’s 3-7 squad) and they know their keys, they’re flying around to the ball and know what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Although it would require a mammoth turnaround, McMillan is hopeful Brainerd can win the district title and make the playoffs this season.
“Coach Gwyn is teaching discipline every day and we’ve come a long way,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a really strong defense. I really enjoy playing in the middle because there’s a lot of action in there.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)