Finishing 15-0 last fall and 48-5 over the last four years, James Counce knows a thing or two about football.
But the veteran Henry County coach is quick to admit he doesn’t know a lot about this team as the season approaches.
“I don’t know how good we are,” said Counce, whose Patriots went undefeated for the second time in three years and claimed a second 5A title. “The kids work hard, and we’ve got a good program. But it remains to be seen what they’re going to do, what kind of fire and enthusiasm they’re going to come out with.
“Every year’s a different year.”
Working in Henry County’s favor – despite the fact that 14 players listed on the two-deep chart for the title game against Knoxville West were seniors – is the experience factor. All five starting offensive linemen played in that contest, and six starters return on defense.
“A lot of these kids were a pretty good part of what we did last year, and some were even a part of what we did in 2011 (as freshmen),” Counce said. “But young kids get complacent when they continually get told how good they are. They develop that mental thing and think they’re good.”
Being confident – but not too confident – is where Counce wants to get his club.
“We’re not good right now,” said senior Jeremiah Godbott, one of three backs along with Chase Henderson and R’tario Perkins that will share the bulk of the carries this fall. “We’re trying our best to get where we were last year. We’re pushing hard to get there.”
The team knows, though, the value of having been there and done that – even if they weren’t necessarily directly involved.
“In tight situations, it’ll help us be able to fight through them,” said Jacob Croasmun, who has taken over the starting quarterback position after backing up Colton Randolph last year. “Having that experience will keep us from panicking, help us be able to lock down and get through it.
“I know what’s expected. Colton set a pretty good example for me (in) how he played and how he improved. I know I have to improve.”
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Henry County’s schedule will give the team an early idea of just how good it is. The Patriots travel to Jackson for an opener with Liberty Tech before consecutive home games against Beech, Northwest, Ridgeway and Rossview.
“Three of our first four opponents are really good teams,” Counce said. “We’ll know pretty quickly.
“These kids know how to win, they know how to work. I think once we get into the season, some of these things I’m worried about will answer themselves.”
Reach Maurice Patton at 615-259-8018 and on Twitter @mopatton_sports.
Class AAA at a glance
Best team: Cookeville. With some players taking over new roles – start with Jacob Edgington (6-6, 255) moving from quarterback to tight end – the Cavaliers may be well positioned for a league title.
Best player: Gabe Angel, RB/S, Cookeville. A transfer from Wilson Central, where he had nearly 600 rushing and receiving yards with four touchdowns as a sophomore, the 6-2, 215-pound Angel projects as a major college prospect.
Best game: Cookeville at Rhea Co., Oct. 3. Rhea County won last year’s district championship, going undefeated with a 27-3 win at Cookeville. The winner of this midseason matchup will have a leg up in this year’s race.
Surprise team: Warren Co.. With Scott Smith (Moore County, Independence, Ezell-Harding) on the sidelines, the Pioneers are going to be an exciting bunch to watch and may catch someone off-guard.
Best team: Oakland. From a talent standpoint, the Patriots may not just be the best team in 7-AAA, but in the Midstate – and possibly beyond. Three Southeastern Conference commitments are just the tip of the iceberg.
Best player: Jauan Jennings, QB/DB, Blackman. Committed to Tennessee, Jennings can be an impact player on either side of the ball and has spent his offseason improving on the passing aspect of his offensive game.
Best game: Oakland at Blackman, Aug. 24. The two teams have split the last six games in this series, including a pair last year, and the matchup may be on the verge of replacing Oakland-Riverdale as the hottest in Rutherford County.
Surprise team: La Vergne. Maleik Gray is already drawing attention as one of the nation’s top sophomores, and with receivers Quin Jernighan and Zedariaus Kinnon (6-7, 215), the Wolverines should score some points.
Best team: Shelbyville. After winning six of their last seven games last fall – including a 5A opening-round playoff game – the Golden Eagles come into this season with some confidence and some talent.
Best player: Mason Cunningham, QB, Shelbyville. Putting up more than 2,600 offensive yards and 28 total touchdowns while earning all-district honors as a sophomore, Cunningham should be even better with another year of experience.
Best game: Shelbyville at Lincoln Co., Oct. 10. The Falcons have lost three straight to Shelbyville, most recently dropping a 41-0 road decision. But the game is in ‘The Pit’ this year, and they could be on a bit of a roll when it comes up.
Surprise team: Franklin Co.. Despite missing the last three postseasons, there’s some excitement around this year’s club – primarily because of juniors Marce Gray and Jai Kinslow and an offensive line that returns intact.
Best team: Hendersonville. The Class 6A runner-up from last season returns eight senior starters from that championship game, including quarterback Jeremias Elston, a three-year starter.
Best player: Jarcques Wardlow, RB/CB, Hendersonville. Though the Commandos traditionally spread their rushing attempts around, Wardlow may emerge as their best speed/power back after a well-spent offseason in the weight room.
Best game: Hendersonville at Station Camp, Oct. 31. This Week 10 clash could be for the 9-AAA title, as Hendersonville could conceivably be unbeaten and Station Camp potentially perfect in league play as well.
Surprise team: Gallatin. Although the Green Wave lost a bunch of seniors from last year’s 5A playoff team, they got a boost with the arrival of running back Dorian Banks from Sevier County.
Best team: Henry Co. With two state titles in the last three years, the Patriots and their trio of talented tailbacks are firmly entrenched as the class of 10-AAA until proven otherwise.
Best player: Isaiah Johnson, RB, Rossview. Johnson is one of the top returning ground-gainers in Tennessee, coming off a junior year in which he rushed for 2,128 yards with 25 touchdowns.
Best game: Rossview at Henry Co., Sept. 19. If any 10-AAA team has the talent and confidence to go into Paris and come out with a win this season, it’d be the Hawks, who lost 29-27 at home last year.
Surprise team: Kenwood. For all the success that Henry County, Rossview and Northeast had in 2013, it’s Kenwood quarterback Malcolm Perry who looks to build on his 10-AAA offensive player of the year status.
Best team: Franklin. The difference between the top four teams is probably paper-thin, but Franklin returns an established and experienced quarterback in Joe Critchlow that may tip the scales in the Rebels’ favor.
Best player: Van Jefferson, WR, Ravenwood. A Tennessean all-Midstate selection (87 catches, 1,257 yards, 14 TDs) in his first year after transferring from Michigan, Jefferson has emerged as one of the area’s top college prospects.
Best game: Independence at Franklin, Oct. 24. After back-to-back one-point losses to Ravenwood and Independence last year kept the Rebels from a district title, they’ll be looking to snap a three-game slide against the Eagles.
Surprise team: Centennial. Running back Deon Sanders and receiver Emanuel Hall give the Cougars a couple of gamebreakers, but they’ll have to shore things up defensively after allowing five 30-point games in ’13.
Best team: Hillsboro. It’s not a stretch to call this the best Hillsboro team since the 2008 state champion squad, considering the Burros have posted just one winning record since, but this is a roster loaded for success.
Best player: Ugo Amadi, QB/DB, Overton. The Ole Miss commitment, who earned all-Midstate honors as a junior, will be all over the field for the Bobcats as new coach Steve Williams looks to utilize his versatility.
Best game: Overton at Hillsboro, Sept. 12. There may not be a lot of suspense in the district race, with this matchup taking place in Week 3, but the game should be one of the best in Metro all season.
Surprise team: McGavock. With a pair of tested returners in the trenches – tackle Damian Starks and guard Ben McCullough – the Raiders may have a shot at producing some offense and becoming a factor in the district race.
– Maurice Patton