2018 TSSAA Playoffs Revealed for the Golden Eagles
by Cameron Meadows, Jace Cochran, and Ryan Smith
While we’re sure Coach Mark “Playoff” Pemberton is urging his players to take the post-season “one game at a time,” we here at Rhea Review thought that you, the Rhea County fan, would enjoy a round by round breakdown of the Eagles’ path to Cookeville.
Obviously, it’s impossible for us to analyze every potential playoff scenario (although that hasn’t stopped Rhea Review Lead Analyst Cameron Meadows from trying), but we’ve attempted to provide a preview of Rhea County’s most likely opponents over the coming weeks.
BUT FIRST, LET’S TALK ABOUT THE EAGLES
In their regular-season finale, Rhea County came up short against the defending Class 6A runner-up, the Cane Ridge Ravens. The Ravens, having lost only one regular season game in the past three seasons, are considered to be one of the top teams in the state, regardless of classification.
The ever-crafty Mark Pemberton used Rhea County’s week 9 bye to implement some wrinkles into the Eagles’ triple-option attack just in time for the playoffs. Against Cane Ridge, the Eagles abandoned the double wing formation and operated primarily out of a split-back “twins open” three-wide receiver formation.
Rhea County fans should be familiar with this formation, as it was used often by Knox West in our 2014 semi-finals match-up. The change will force opposing defenses to move players out of the box to cover the three wide receivers, while also opening up more options in the passing game.
This proved true against Cane Ridge, as the Eagles completed 7 passes on 13 attempts against Cane Ridge — both season highs.
Schematic changes aside, the Eagles’ offensive production still flows through quarterback Zach Pemberton. Pemberton, through the ground and the air, has accounted for 27 of the Eagles’ 32 touchdowns and roughly 50% of the team’s yardage on the season.
The bulk of the remaining offensive production has come from Rhea County’s five-headed monster backfield, which is comprised of Bo Garmany, Bradley Goodwin, Chandler Kaylor, and Gavin Morrison. In our only look at the “new” offense, Garmany and Goodwin took the majority of snaps at the running back positions.
In the trenches, the Eagles continued to make adjustments to their injury-stricken offensive line by adding converted tight end Avery Alday at left tackle alongside Jacob Stringfellow, Asa Patton, Colton Edwards, and Payton Dugger.
Defensively, Coach Taylor Ownbey’s bunch has given up 176 points thus far on the season, which averages out to a respectable 19.6 points per game. The Eagle defense is anchored by senior inside linebacker Chandler Kaylor who is averaging over 8 tackles per game.
The Eagles need a big performance on Friday night from Kaylor, as well as the rest of the defensive front 7, in order to slow down the Oak Ridge offense, which runs the ball nearly 70% of snaps.
ROUND ONE AT OAK RIDGE // NOVEMBER 2ND AT 7:00 PM
Four years ago, a horde of Rhea Countians descended upon Oak Ridge to watch an unbeaten Rhea County squad pound the Oak Ridge Wildcats in the quarterfinals. Dozens of middle school football players who watched that game from the stands have earned their opportunity to once again travel to Blankenship Field for a playoff game.
This year’s iteration of the Wildcat squad enters the playoffs at 8-2 with narrow losses against two of the states best teams, Farragut and Fulton.
During last Thursday’s 21-13 loss to Fulton, Oak Ridge star quarterback and defensive back Herbert Booker #13 (6-0 182) exited the game with an upper-body injury. On the season, Booker has accounted for the bulk of the Wildcats’ offense, with over 500 yards rushing and 700 yards passing. If Booker is unable to suit up against the Eagles, expect to see sophomore backup quarterback Mitchell Gibbons #14 (5-9 155) lead the Oak Ridge offense.
Gibbons was solid in his relief appearance against Fulton last Thursday. He showed off his arm, going 7 of 16 for 72 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Senior running back Jordan Graham #8 (5-7 175) is a small and shifty back that is averaging nearly 10 yards per touch on the season.
Graham is also the leading kick returner for Oak Ridge.
Tyrell Romano #21 (6-0 195) is another dangerous running back for the Wildcats. He is the third leading rusher on the team, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry. Leading the Wildcats in receiving with 322 yards and two touchdowns is Kai’Reese Pendergrass #12 (5-11 170).
Pendergrass also returns punts for the Wildcats and is averaging nearly 20 yards per return with two touchdowns. The second-leading receiver is Jonathan Stewart #2 (6-0 180) with 11 catches for 148 yds.
On the defensive side of the ball, Oak Ridge is one of the best statically in the State; Oak Ridge is led by Matthew Calhoun #56 (5-10 180) and Darius Stewart #60 (5-9 221). Calhoun has 38 total tackles on the season and leads the team with 4 sacks. Stewart has 22 tackles and 3 sacks.
Oak Ridge’s linebacking group is led by the talented Jacob Adams. Adams leads the team in tackles with 97 with an average of 3.5 tackles for loss per game. The Wildcat’s secondary is loaded with talent. Lead by Booker and Jack Replogle #26 (5-9 163). Booker leads the team and is tied for most interceptions in the state with 7 on the season and Replogle has 51 tackles, 3 sacks and 1 interception on the year.
The special teams for Oak Ridge are led by two kickers, Brady Hutson #31 (5-8 185) and Camden Mlekodja #80 (5-11 255). Hutson mainly handles the kickoffs while Mlekodja handles field goal and PAT duties. Mlekodja is 28 of 30 on PATs and is 3 of 4 on field goals, with a long of 31 yds. Wide receiver Kai’Reese Pendergrass is also the starting punter and is averaging nearly 30 yards per punt.
Oak Ridge is coached by the legendary Joe Gaddis. Gaddis coached the Wildcats from 1988 to 1998 and returned to lead the Wildcat program in 2013. In 35 years of coaching, Gaddis has compiled an overall record of 313-112.
This will be the eighth all-time meeting between the Golden Eagles and Wildcats. Oak Ridge leads the series 6-1.
Kick-off for Friday night’s game is set for 7:00 pm at Blankenship Field.
POTENTIAL SECOND ROUND OPPONENTS
AT #1 SODDY (8-2)
If both teams win their first-round matchups, Rhea County will once again travel down Highway 27 for a rematch with longtime rival Soddy-Daisy. Earlier this season, Soddy-Daisy managed to defeat the Eagles 17-14 on their way to their first region championship since 1996.
Soddy is coach by Justin Barnes in his 5th season as the head coach of the Trojans. Since the Eagles and Trojans last met in week 8, Soddy has suffered a slew of injuries at the quarterback position. During last week’s game against Walker Valley, Soddy-Daisy shifted starting running back Hayden Maynor to quarterback.
HOME vs. #4 CLINTON (4-6)
The Clinton Dragons are led by coach Randy McKamey, who was suspended earlier in the season after a mid-field altercation with an opposing coaching staff. The Clinton Dragons run a version of the double wing offense, similar to what Rhea County has ran in previous seasons.
Clinton finished 4th in Region 3-5A and clinched a playoff spot by beating Knox Karns in the final week of play. Despite their 4-6 record, many consider this to be one of the best Clinton teams in recent memory. Of note, Rhea County defeated Clinton 32-7 in a preseason scrimmage.
POTENTIAL THIRD ROUND (QUARTERFINALS) OPPONENTS
HOME vs. #1 FULTON (9-1)
Fulton is no stranger to deep playoff runs. Fulton is led by 4 year starter Xavier Malone #1 (6-3 207) at QB. Malone is a next level QB with offers from Eastern Kentucky, Austin Peay, and UAB. He is a very good athlete that can make plays with both his arm and feet.
Helping lead the offense is running back Deshawn Page #6 (6-2 215). Page is a powerful runner with a good burst of speed. The receiving corps is led by JaShaun Fenderson #2 (5-10 187). Fenderson leads Fulton with 725 yds on 48 catches for 6 TDs.
The defense for Fulton is loaded at the linebacker position, led by Page, Ja’Coryan Anderson #12 (6-3 210), and Robquan Thomas #4 (6-1 202). Page has amassed 59 tackles with 12.5 for loss. Anderson is the second leading tackler with 47 tackles. In the secondary Shamond Morelan #3 leads Fulton with 3 interceptions on the year. Fulton is coached by Rob Black (87-18).
HOME vs. #2 KNOX CATHOLIC (6-3)
Should the Eagles meet Knox Catholic in the quarterfinals, it would be the last time for the foreseeable future that the two teams could face off in the postseason. Starting in 2019, the Irish will transition to the D-II AAA private school division.
As we saw in Evensville earlier this season, the Irish are led by a talented group of offensive and defensive linemen including Bryn Tucker #55 (6-5 305), Cooper Mayes #78 (6-3 250), and Stiles Moore #7 (6-3 221).
All three linemen have pulled in major D-I offers ranging from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida, Auburn, Ohio State, LSU, and Duke. The QB for Knox Catholic is Jack Jancek #3 (6-4 180).
Jancek, the son of former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek, is back from an ankle injury and looking for another state title. Two freshmen, wide receiver Tommy Winton # 24 (5-10 175) and running back Keondre Jarmon #1 (5-9 175), have had a major impact for the Irish so far this season.
Earlier this season, Jarmon ran for 266 yards against the Eagles, and Winton has totaled over 1,300 all-purpose yards in 2018.
POTENTIAL FOURTH ROUND (SEMIFINALS) OPPONENTS
HOME vs. #1 KNOX CENTRAL (8-2)
Early last season, Knox Central lost starting quarterback Dakota Fawver #2 (5’11” 180) to a season-ending knee injury. Despite playing 5 different players at the quarterback position throughout the remainder of the season, the Bobcats managed to win three playoff games before losing to eventual state champion Knox Catholic in the semifinals.
This year, Fawver is back and has thrown for 1839 yards, 17 TDs, and just five interceptions on the season. Fawver’s favorite target is Demetrian Johnson #6 (6’3 175). Johnson has over 800 yards receiving and five touchdowns on the year.
HOME vs. #1 CROCKETT (10-0)
Many folks in the Tri-Cities area believe that the undefeated David Crockett High School Pioneers are poised for a run to the state title. The Pioneers are led by quarterback Cade Larkins #16 (6’2” 215). Larkins has thrown for over 3172 yards, 36 touchdowns, and only 6 interceptions. Larkins 3172 yds leads the entire state in passing.
Larkins’ leading receivers are Donta Hackler #3 (6-4 190) and Micah Robinson #7 ( 6-1 180). Hackler has 54 receptions for 1002 yds and 14 TDs. Robinson has put equally impressive number hauling in 45 catches for 991 yds and 12 TDS. Crockett also has a good ground game lead by Ronquille Joyner #1 (5’8 170). Joyner has rushed for 791 yds and 6 TDs so far this season.
HOME vs. #2 BOONE (8-2)
Daniel Boone High School Trailblazers’ only regular-season losses came to undefeated Crockett and 4A power Elizabethton. Boone is led by bruising junior running back Charlie Cole (6-2 225), who has average over 1,000 yards per season since starting as a freshman.
HOME vs. #3 TENNESSEE HIGH (7-3)
The Tennessee High Vikings pulled off a major upset of Knox Central to start the season and have ridden the momentum ever since. Tennessee High will have to leave the comfort of the Castle (and yes, it is an actual castle) this postseason.
Of the Vikings 3 losses, one came in overtime against undefeated Crockett, and another involved a controversial “early whistle” play on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown against Boone.
HOME vs. #2 SOUTH DOYLE (7-3)
South Doyle is coached by the legendary Clark Duncan. South Doyle touts two of Knoxville’s best college prospects in the Ton’Quez Ball #1 (6-0 190) and Elijah Young #2 (5-11 170).
Ball has 18 scholarship offers, and Young has 7 offers from Power 5 schools such as Tennessee, Mississippi State, Louisville, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia Tech. South Doyle has faced some adversity going into the playoffs dropping their last two games including a 35-0 loss to Knox Central.
POTENTIAL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME OPPONENTS
#1 HENRY COUNTY (9-1)
Perennial powerhouse Henry Co. could be a strong contender coming out of the West. Henry County has a very loyal fan base that travels very well. Henry County is led by Will Parrish #11 (5-11 160). Parrish has thrown for 1535 yds, 18 TDs, and only 5 interceptions. Jayln Foster #5 (5’7 157) the leading rusher for the Patriots racking up 1057 yds and 11 TDs.
#1 PAGE (9-1)
Hailing out of Franklin, the Page Patriots have become a 5A power in Middle Tennessee over the last few seasons. Rhea County has a connection to Page in that former Eagle player, and coach Brooks Smith is the defensive coordinator for the Patriots. Page’s offense is run by Cade Walker #7 (6’1 180). Walker has thrown for 1514 yds and 19 TDs.
Walker’s favorite target is Michael Burdick #10 (6’0 160). Burdick has caught 63 passes for 725 yds and 11 TDs. Page’s defense is lead by their middle linebacker Austin Harshaw #30 (5’8 188). Harshaw has mage 105 total tackles with 11.5 tackles for lose and 3 sacks.
#1 HILLSBOROUGH (7-3)
Another perennial powerhouse out of Nashville will once again look to make another deep playoff run. Hillsboro will have to make this playoff run without playing a home game due to their stadium and field being renovated.
Hillsboro finished in a three-way tie for the Region 6-5A crown with Beech and Gallatin but owned the tiebreaker to claim the number 1 seed in the region. Hillsboro is a very athletic team that typically puts quite a few players on college rosters.
#1 KIRBY (9-1)
Kirby is having a great year after facing adversity off the field as their high school was closed indefinitely because of a rodent and snake infestation. However, even with the adversity, Kirby has put together a nice resume with wins over Melrose and Ridgeway. Kirby’s lone loss came to North Mississippi power Olive Branch.
#2 BEECH (7-3)
Former 5A state champion Beech Buccaneers are looking at making another title run this year. Leading the team’s offense is a two-headed monster this year with Ja’Sean Parks #7 (5’10 165) and Tysean Jefferson #3 (5’5 136).
Parks has rushed for 1020 yds and 11 TDs. In 3 of the last 4 games, Parks has rushed over 190 yds three times. Jefferson is a small, shifty back that seems to get lost behind the line until it is too late. Jefferson has over 800 yds and 11 touchdowns on the year so far.