JT Postell’s first year as head coach went as well as anyone in Tuscola Nation could’ve expected.
Led by a strong senior class that included the three-headed backfield monster of Bailee Ewart, Brandon Cullins and Nick Cole, the Mountaineers posted an 8-5 record and won their first round playoff game against Jay M. Robinson, a team that had defeated them in the 2017 postseason.
All of this success — especially that of the running game — was particularly impressive, given the fact that Postell was working with five fresh faces across the offensive line, as well as a new quarterback.
But that’s all in the past now. With Postell’s second season just around the corner, the Mountaineers are looking to take steps forward. One key way to do that would be to win The County Clash: the annual rivalry game against cross-county foe Pisgah. Pisgah leads the all-time series 28-26-1.
If the Mountaineers can pull off a victory in this year’s contest, which will be held in Waynesville Sept. 6, it will be their first win over the Bears in six long years.
The County Clash is the Mountaineers’ second game of the season. A victory would erase a half-decade plus of frustration and boost their confidence heading into WMAC play, which offers challenging games week-in and week-out.
“As a head coach, I need to do a better job of preparing our guys for that game, and that week,” Postell said. “But give Pisgah credit, they’ve had our number over the last several years. It’s up to us to change that.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Tuscola this season is how it will replace that aforementioned backfield trio. Ewart, Cullins and Cole were the heart of the offense, as they combined to rush for 2,604 yards and 22 touchdowns. Brayden Monday, Will Smathers and Sam Messer were also key members of an 18-player senior class that graduated this summer.
Postell understands how meaningful those guys were. But it’s the nature of high school football to continuously have to replace departed players and rely on new talent. So the coach is gazing forward with optimism.
“It’s never an easy chore when you have to replace three all-conference running backs,” Postell said. “You just hope the next group realizes that they have a great opportunity to not only fill that void, but also to challenge themselves to surpass what the previous group did.
“We have to replace players every year. So for us, it’s next man up.”
While Postell has not put forth a motto for his players to live by in 2019 (as of yet, at least), he’s stressing two things in particular as they gear up for the fast-approaching regular season, which begins Aug. 30 at Rhea County (Tennessee). “We talk about ownership and accountability a bunch,” he said. “Take pride in your work and this program, and hold yourself and your teammates accountable.”
“We feel if we do these things, we have a good opportunity to be successful and uphold the great tradition that is Tuscola football.”
Gone is last year’s starter, senior Hunter Bryson, a standout shortstop and Appalachian State baseball commit who has decided to focus on his diamond work.
His younger brother, sophomore Coleman Bryson, is expected to be the new signal caller. Coleman Bryson showed athleticism as a defensive back last season. He also returned a punt for a touchdown against North Henderson Sept. 13.
He’s impressed Postell during 7-on-7 season this summer. The coach has commended the young signal caller for his willingness to become a vocal leader, despite his underclassmen status.
“We expect big things from him this year,” the coach said.
Junior Nick Rich, last year’s starting JV quarterback, will back-up Coleman and possibly vie for playing time.
There may be a new three-headed monster roaming the backfield this season. The void left by the graduations of Ewart, Cullins and Cole may be filled by another trio of talented athletes.
Nick Helsel and Gavin Tannerhill, both of whom enjoyed limited action at running back last season, will see their roles greatly increased in 2019. Additionally, Garrett Fox, one of the JV squad’s top rushers from a year ago, could find his way into the mix.
Four starters return from a group that, despite being completely new last season, did a commendable job of opening holes for one of the best rushing attacks in the WMAC.
Joseph Hernandez, Joseph Smart, Jonathan Smart and Josh Green are all back in the saddle, with several others — including Cash Medford, Hunter Murphy, Grayson Jones and Harrison Hall — expected to make contributions whenever called upon.
Gone is the formidable Monday, who took a scholarship offer at Liberty University in Virginia. It’s never easy for a team to lose a player like Monday, a solid leader and dynamic athlete. But Postell is confident that Juan Sanchez and Locke Davis will be capable of filling the gap.
The Mountaineers didn’t have a lot of success through the air last season. And with a new and relatively untested quarterback entering the fold, it’s murky as to how much they’ll rely on the passing game.
That being said, Ephraim Tice — one of the team’s top receivers from a year ago — will be back. Postell is also hoping that Riley Jones, Justin Furman, D’Shawn Cullins (the younger brother of Brandon Cullins) and Ezra Burgess will be able to contribute out wide.
Monday will undoubtedly be missed at defensive end, but three starters return to anchor the defensive front. Juan Sanchez, Jonathan Smart and Joseph Hernandez are all back from one of last year’s most talented position groups.
Postell expects a host of new faces, including Lucas Teague, Caleb Henry, Ethan Tucker Locke Davis and Drake Davis to compete for playing time and possibly earn starting spots, depending on how everything shakes out.
On the inside, Helsel — the team’s leading tackler from a year ago — returns to fortify a group that Postell believes is one of the deepest in years. Supporting Helsel will be John Eric Francis, Greg Harrison and Conner Medina.
On the outside, Tannerhill, a jack-of-all-trades type, is back alongside two other players (Drew Gilland and Carlos Vera) who saw playing time in 2018. Coleman Cothern, a JV standout last year, will also have an opportunity to work his way onto the field.
Tice and Bryson will return to anchor a secondary that experienced ups and downs in 2018. Both players came up with numerous interceptions in key spots, but pass-heavy teams like A.C. Reynolds and Erwin were able to have a lot of success through the air.
In addition to that duo, newcomers Justin Furman, Riley Jones, Jeremy Chagnon and D’Shawn Cullins will add depth to a defensive backfield that will try to ground some of the WMAC’s stronger aerial attacks.
Davis King drilled key field goals against Pisgah and Swain last season, and was reliable as the extra point man. He’s back to handle kicking duties.
The departure of Ewart left a hole at the punter position that will be filled either by Bryson or Rich.
In the return game, Tice, Tannerhill, Fox, Cullins and Bryson will be called upon to make game-changing plays.