Graduation hit Blackman’s football team like a linebacker blitz.
All but six starters are gone off the 2011 squad that finished District 7-AAA runner-up. That list includes Ole Miss signee and Mr. Football winner I’Tavius Mathers, two-year starting quarterback Tyler Stickland and leading receiver Jalen Smith.
But Blackman fourth-year coach Philip Shadowens insists this year’s team still has plenty of experience returning.
“I don’t feel like we have two offensive and four defensive starters returning because we played numerous kids last year,” Shadowens said. “At some point, several of these players played 50 percent of the time last year.”
Senior Dee Mathers replaces I’Tavius Mathers, his older brother, in the backfield at running back. The younger Mathers had a career-high 170 yards on 19 carries in his only start at running back after his brother sustained a toe injury.
Dee Mathers rushed for 342 yards for the season and will also start at free safety after starting at corner last year. He will split time with junior Cole Notgrass (29 carries, 131 yards) at running back.
Junior Antonio Allen returns at fullback, where he rushed for 399 yards with five TDs. K.J. Wilkerson will back up Allen, who also is a starter at linebacker.
Quarterback is perhaps the biggest competition with seniors Chase Smotherman and Matt Williams vying for the starting spot. Williams is a Father Ryan transfer, while Smotherman backed up Strickland the past two seasons.
Shadowens said the two are similar and both likely will play. However, Williams may get the starting nod since Smotherman is starting on defense.
“I feel like we have two good quarterbacks that can win,” he said. “I’m not sure one has clearly defined himself.”
Wide receiver Quindell Cousin is in line for a breakout season. The coaching staff has raved about his offseason. He’ll start at receiver and also play defensive end. Masion Baer also is a threat at receiver, while Styles Corder and Jamie Kent also will play at receiver.
“(Cousin) is a physical kid that will start at defensive end and receiver,” Shadowens said. “He’s a physical player with a long wing span. He could have a huge year.”
Cousin’s presence on the defensive line is important. Former La Vergne and MTCS defensive coordinator Steve Williams will take on the defensive play calling this season. He’ll have his work cut out for him. The Blaze defense ranked last in yards allowed in District 7-AAA play in 2011, giving up 365.8 per game. The Blaze also yielded 26.6 points against district opponents, ranking them fourth of six teams.
Shadowens said many don’t expect the Blaze to compete for a District 7-AAA title this season after the loss of I’Tavius Mathers and the other senior starts.
“Everybody thinks there are three teams that are clearly the best and they have put us on the outside of that,” Shadowens said. “We have a lot to prove.”