When Ensworth looks in its rear view mirror, it sees Brentwood Academy.
The Eagles may be the closest team to catching the Tigers, who have won the past four Division II-AA football titles.
BA was the only team to beat Ensworth last year and the Eagles have made it to the state semifinals in each of coach Cody White’s first two seasons.
“I think they have been the most talented team in our league over the last five years,” Tigers coach Ricky Bowers said. “They have size, they have speed, they have depth, they’ve got a bunch of good kids that are smart players, they’re well coached.”
BA lost its most talented player, Notre Dame commitment C.J. Sanders, when the receiver moved to California during the offseason. But there’s plenty coming back.
“They give us challenges that no other team can give us,” said Bowers, a former assistant at BA. “They’re a little different schematically and their collective team speed is always better than everybody else’s that we play. They’re sophisticated.”
An argument can be made that Memphis University School is the top contender since the Owls finished second in DII-AA the past two years.
But BA beat MUS 31-14 in the opener in Memphis despite the loss of quarterback Knox Dawson to a broken ankle. He is expected to return late in the year.
“I really think that Brentwood Academy is just about as talented as anybody in the state,” said Barton Simmons, Director of Scouting for 247 Sports. “You’re talking about a pair of book-end offensive tackles that are likely SEC linemen down the road. You’ve got a defensive line across the board that’s big and athletic. I think at the skill positions they’re extremely deep with a lot of college level guys.”
BA offensive tackle Ryan Johnson (6-foot-6, 260-pound junior) has committed to Tennessee. Bryce Mathews (6-6, 270, junior) has offers from Alabama, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.
Mathews’ father, Jason, is the BA offensive line coach. He played in the NFL for 11 seasons with Tennessee and Indianapolis.
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White is glad the Eagles made it to the semifinals the past two seasons, but coaching at a school that has won 10 state titles he’s looking for championships.
“Obviously, I think we aspire for more than that,” White said of the semifinal showings. “I’m proud of the groups of kids and I had a lot of fun with them. We were so close to finishing it, we need to get there – all the way.”
Before arriving at BA in 2012, White coached in Texas where football is king. He went 34-24 during five years at Denison.
He was an assistant at Highland Park and Odessa Permian before landing the job at Denison. He was at Permian in 2003 when a crew was filming Friday Night Lights, a movie about one of Texas’ most successful high school programs.
Coaching in DII-AA for two seasons has given him an appreciation for football in Tennessee.
“I think you could take any of these staffs that we play year-in, year-out in our league and put them anywhere in Texas and they’d win,” White said. “There’s really good coaching and it’s not much different.”
White has brought a Texas brand of coaching to Tennessee that starts in the offseason.
“We are probably the most conditioned team in the state of Tennessee,” said guard/defensive lineman Jackson Pittman, who has three offers. “We run so much and our weight lifting is high paced, and practice is always up-tempo. They really brought Texas football here to Tennessee.”
Former BA coach Carlton Flatt set a high standard for every coach who follows him when he retired with 355 career wins in 2006.
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But he believes the confidence gained from past success outweighs the pressure of high expectations.
“I feel like the confidence that you get — there was a game a year that we won it because maybe the other team felt like we were going to be good,” said Flatt, whose house is behind the BA football stadium. “And sometimes we might not be as good as we were at other years. So I think overall I’d rather be somebody that is looked upon as hard to beat than being looked upon as not very good.”
Flatt believes the Eagles will be hard to beat this year. Jeremiah Oatsvall and Thomas Swafford will fill in for Knox.
BA is hoping for its first state title since 2006, the year Flatt retired. Pittman said it feels like “forever ago.”
If Oatsvall and Swafford can carry the team until Knox’s return in October, the Eagles might make a playoff run.
“We would definitely love (another title),” said free safety/receiver Aaquil Annoor, who has nine offers. “I think this year is the year.”
Reach Chip Cirillo at 615-664-2194 and on Twitter @ChipCirillo.