A lot can change in eight months. The Greenback football team said its farewell to the winningest senior class in program history in December, and coach Greg Ryan had some concern when looking at his returning roster.
Around the same time, he was asked to choose a Region 2-1A champion for Murphy Fair’s Tennessee high school football magazine, and he picked Oliver Springs over his own team.
“At the time, I firmly believed Oliver Springs had the upper hand and should be the favorite to win the region, but once our roster changed a little bit and we got in the weight room and started practicing, that changed a lot of things,” Ryan told The Daily Times.
“Now, our expectations are to take it one game at a time, but we fully expect to have the opportunity to play for the state championship.”
A quartet of incoming players via transfer were the catalyst for such a drastic change in opinion while also changing the perception of the upcoming season and saving the Cherokees’ recent run of dominance in Class 1A.
Former Maryville starting quarterback Braden Carnes highlights the crop of new faces, but Blake Fields and Wyatt Rutgerson from William Blount and Josiah Millsaps from Tellico Plains will all play a prominent role.
Carnes completed 120 of his 164 attempts (73.2%) for 1,441 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Rebels as one half of a two-quarterback system last season — production that shows he is capable of filling in for 2018 Tennessee Titans Class 1A Mr. Football Bryce Hanley.
Fields and Rutgerson slot themselves into a decimated secondary and will also contribute at wide receiver alongside senior Holden Willis, who hauled in 41 catches for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns before suffering a season-ending collarbone injury last year.
Fields logged 33 tackles and an interception for the Governors last year, and Rutgerson amassed 387 all-purpose yards while registering 42 tackles, three pass deflections, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Millsaps was a 2017 TSWA All-State linebacker.
Their arrival comes ahead of a season in which the Cherokees will be tested early and often.
Greenback opens against county-rival and Class 3A-competitor Loudon and travels to Meigs County — one of the top teams in Class 2A the following week. Two weeks later, it faces traditional Class 2A power Oneida. The Cherokees also take on Class 5A Lenoir City on Sept. 27.
“You throw those four guys in with what we had and now we think we can compete,” Ryan said, “Not only at the 1A level, but against all the teams on our schedule.”
However, the addition of four players doesn’t solve all of Greenback’s problems.
The Cherokees are still devoid of leadership after losing each of their team captains from a year ago, evidenced by Ryan calling out the senior members of his team following a scrimmage against Sweetwater on Aug. 2 for not uplifting inexperienced players.
It is the chief hurdle Greenback has to overcome to avoid halting an offseason’s worth of momentum.
“We have 13 seniors this year and I’ve talked to them in the past about understanding leadership, and I don’t know if those guys quite understand it yet,” Ryan said. “Leadership is not chewing a guy out when he messes up. In my mind, leadership is leading by example, being a role model and doing things the right way.
“A lot of our seniors, they’re not big talkers, and that’s fine. You don’t have to be a cheerleader or be the team motivator, but I am asking those guys to do the little things that we ask day in and day out.”
While leadership is a question, effort is not.
Because of that, Ryan believes his defense will be stout yet again — the Cherokees allowed 12.1 points per game last season — and his offense will be dynamic despite losing a group of players to graduation that accounted for 3,779 yards from scrimmage.
Production like that is hard to replace, but it helps that Greenback has a motivating factor it hasn’t had since 2014 — to get back to the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl. The Cherokees suffered a 24-21 loss to Whitwell in the semifinals, snapping a three-year run of playing for a state title in Cookeville.
“I’ve talked about it a lot because I wish I could have been out there to help them out,” Willis said. “Knowing the guys on the previous team that I’ve seen be successful for their whole life, to lose like that was tough.
“Everybody should get a little bit more drive from that (loss), and once it comes playoff time, you’ll be able to see that easily.”
Sixteen seniors walked off the field for the final time last November and it felt like the end of an era, but a handful of incoming players have given Greenback new life.
The Cherokees have at least one more state championship run in them, and they plan on finishing it this time around.
“I could see us winning another state championship without a doubt,” Willis said. “I don’t like to cocky, but in my eyes, the only thing that can beat us is ourselves. We could line up against Alabama and Nick Saban right now, and the way I look at is nobody is going to beat us except us.
“If we go play the ball we know how to play with the coaching we have, we should be able to beat anybody.”
Follow @Troy_Provost on Twitter for more from sports reporter Troy Provost-Heron. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.