Maryville hears all the chatter.
The Rebels lost 17 starters from last season’s state championship-winning team that has been hailed as one of the best in program history, and with that success comes the belief that a decline is inevitable.
However, that assumption may be nothing more than wishful thinking when it comes to the premier Class 6A program in the state.
“It doesn’t bother us that much because we know how good we can be,” senior running back Parker McGill told The Daily Times. “I feel like we’re going to be a really good team and we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Maryville will get its first chance to silence the doubters when it hosts Region 2-6A foe William Blount at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
It will do so after a pandemic-affected offseason that canceled spring practice and prohibited preseason scrimmages. Those limitations will impact a new cast of Rebels that had to “start from square one” in terms of the install process because of the abundance of turnover from last season’s roster, but this group is more than capable of clearing that hurdle.
“There are some hungry kids on this team,” Maryville head coach Derek Hunt said. “Nobody knows their names, and they’re going to make a lot of mistakes on the football field early on, but I think we’re going to play really hard and give teams our best shot.
“We’ll be young and inexperienced, but the great thing about Maryville kids is they expect to win every game they play. Whether we do or we don’t, the expectation is there, and that’s a high expectation that we don’t ever want to change.”
The Rebels replace every starting skill position from a year ago after the graduation of quarterback Cade Chambers, running back Tee Hodge, tight end Brody Sloan and wide receivers A.J. Davis and Ashton Maples.
Senior running back Parker McGill is the lone returning player to amass more than 200 yards from scrimmage last season, racking up a team-high 1,270 yards on 184 carries (6.9 yards per carry) as both a change of pace back and a starter when Hodge was sidelined for multiple games with a turf toe injury.
“I don’t want to say I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, but I feel like if our offensive line is doing good and I’m doing good behind them, that makes us all look good,” McGill said. “It’s really a team game, so I don’t want to put all that pressure on me.”
The offense surrounding McGill consists of wide receivers Nick Dagel and Markel Fortenberry and junior quarterback Carson Jones.
Jones was efficient in relief of Chambers as Maryville steamrolled opponents en route to the program’s 16th BlueCross Bowl championship, completing 34 of his 50 pass attempts for 482 yards and nine touchdowns while not throwing an interception.
“Carson’s biggest thing last year was not being as vocal as he needs to be and he is starting to do that,” Hunt said. “He is starting to mature and understand that his voice matters on the football field. You don’t have to be a loud guy all the time to be a leader, but you have to be willing to speak up when the time is right, and he is starting to learn that.”
The Rebels’ offense was potent a year ago, but it was overshadowed by a defense that stifled opponents.
Maryville held opponents to eight points and 158 yards per game last season, but the cornerstones of that dominant unit — defensive lineman Ethan Ensley, safety Drew Crowder and linebackers Seth Orren, Mason Shelton and Matt Brooks — all graduated.
Senior linebacker Lou Burchfield and junior safety DJ Burks were both major contributors in 2019 and will be the linchpins of a defense that is being doubted for the second consecutive season.
The duo will be surrounded by a deep rotation of players early in the season as the Rebels attempt to find which 11 players comprise their best unit.
“No one expects us to come out and perform the way we know we’re going to perform, but that was the case last year, too, and we came out and had what I think was one of the best defenses Tennessee has ever seen,” Burchfield said. “We’re going to try and outdo that expectation again this year and put another trophy on the wall.”
There are a bevy of question marks surrounding Shields Stadium as the season nears, but the Rebels are embracing the uncommon feeling of being an afterthought when it comes to discussions about the contenders for the state championship in what is shaping up as the most unusual fall in 100 years.
Maryville may not be the juggernaut it was a year ago, but it does have a chip on its shoulder, and that may just make this team as formidable as the one that cruised to a Gold Ball last season.
“Because of the numbers we are replacing, we shouldn’t be at the top,” Hunt said. “I don’t care how good we’ve been in the past because the past doesn’t mean anything. That’s what I hope our team understands. We have to come out and earn every bit of success that we have.
“We have a phenomenal opportunity in front of us to prove people wrong, have young guys to get better and show that this Maryville teams belongs with some great Maryville teams in the past.”