A year ago, Greenback was tasked with replacing the winningest senior class in program history and did so with experienced players that were waiting in the wings and several transfers that propelled it to its fourth Class 1A BlueCross Bowl berth in five years.
The Cherokees enter this season looking to reload once again, but this time they will do it in a much different fashion.
“The bottom line is that I have 43 kids on the football team and 19 of them are freshmen,” Greenback coach Greg Ryan told The Daily Times. “It’s a lot of new kids, but all those kids, whether they are ready to play this year or not, they love the game and they’re used to playing football.
“Last year, we had a lot of guys with a lot of experience and there wasn’t as much teaching that we had to do because they knew it from years before. This year, we’re having to change things up a little bit, but that is nothing new to them because they didn’t know what we did last year.”
Greenback opens the season on the road against rival Loudon at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The Redskins cruised to a 54-20 victory over the Cherokees in last season’s opener.
A young roster comes with changes that will set this Greenback team apart from those of the past.
Bryce Hanley threw for 2,578 yards and 28 touchdowns en route to being named Tennessee Titans Class A Mr. Football in 2018. Braden Carnes became the second quarterback in TSSAA history to throw for more than 50 touchdowns last season, tossing 52 while logging 4,116 yards through the air.
The high-powered offense that those two signal callers operated over the last three years will now focus on ball control with freshman quarterback Brennen Duggan taking over under center.
Duggan can develop into a quarterback capable of putting up video-game numbers, but it will take time.
“It’s definitely different, but where it is the most different in my mind is that playbook is narrower,” Ryan said. “We’re not going to go into the first game with 15 different route combinations — we might go in with seven or eight. Each day is going to be a teaching day, and because of that, it’s a slower process.
“We’ll get it, and by the middle of the season we should be just fine. I have all the confidence in Duggan and so does the team, and that’s the biggest thing.”
Duggan will be surrounded by an entirely new cast of playmakers after the graduations of wide receivers Holden Willis and Duke Stinnett and running back Wyatt Rutgerson — a trio that accounted for 4,384 of Greenback’s 5,900 total yards last season (74.3%).
Greenback hopes it can replace Rutgerson in the backfield with William Blount transfer Micah Franklin, but it is waiting to hear back from the TSSAA regarding a hardship waiver for the running back. Franklin logged 1,265 yards from scrimmage last season — the only offensive weapon with more than 600 such yards for the Governors.
Senior wide receiver Blake Fields arguably has the biggest void to fill in replacing last season’s Class 1A Mr. Football winner Holden Willis, who broke the TSSAA single-season record for touchdown receptions with 28 and recorded 1,704 yards on 73 catches.
“I feel the pressure every day,” Fields said. “I’ll be lining up and be thinking, ‘Dang, I have to do everything that he did.’ He could beat somebody and go every time, and I want to take my game to his game. It’s going to be hard, but I think I can do it.”
As Greenback attempts to piece together a new-look offense, it will lean on its defense to continue its run as one of the premier programs in Class 1A over the past half-decade.
The unit is centered on sophomore offensive tackle and defensive lineman Tyler Jeffries, a Power 5 prospect who racked up 78 tackles (7.5 for loss) last season. Senior linebacker Austin Burger also returns after tallying 55 total tackles a year ago.
Burger will be joined in the second level by sophomore Ashton Orr, who Jeffries believes will be a “stud” by the middle of the season.
Senior Winston Ward and Fields are the two most experienced members of a secondary that has a lot to prove behind what should be a stout front seven.
“We’re pretty confident with how our defense is set up right now,” Jeffries said. “We should tear it up this season.”
The Cherokees believe this season will be no different than those in the past, with Ryan stating “anytime we play a 1A team, regardless of who it is, we expect to win,” but there will be a learning curve.
Greenback is no stranger to that either, losing its first two games last year as it tried to develop chemistry within a new starting lineup. Twelve straight victories and a state runner-up finish followed, and the Cherokees believe a similar outcome is possible this season.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of people are going to be surprised with what we have going on this year,” Jeffries added. “We’re trying to repeat what we did last year and then try and win (a state championship). That is what motivates all of us every day.”