When told that his peers had voted his Rams the preseason District-6AA football favorites for 2011, Tyner coach Wayne Turner's jaw dropped.
"Well, it's obvious they haven't been out here [at practice] with me," he said.
In an informal poll of the league members' coaches, Red Bank and Central were second and third behind Tyner. East Hamilton was picked fourth, followed by Brainerd, Hixson, East Ridge and Howard.
"You always have to count Red Bank in there because of the tradition," Turner said. "They always have good numbers and talented players."
Central's Purple Pounders backed into the playoffs last year, "and they showed some improvement with some young players. They'll give people problems."
If there is to be a fourth playoff team from the district, that may not be decided until the final week of the regular season.
"I think there will be more of a fight for the middle," Turner said. "They're balanced. Each of them has things it does well."
The Rams will be trying to defend the championship they won a year ago before getting bumped out of the postseason by Polk County.
"I'd say we're pretty solid defensively. Offensively we have a ways to go to be where I'd like us to be," Turner said.
With more than two weeks till the Rams' first game (Aug. 26 at Signal Mountain), Turner said he has pretty well locked in 10 of the 11 defensive starters and seven of the offensive starters. He said at least seven Rams will play extensively on both sides of the ball.
That thinking may change once he gets a look at transfer Tyrell Smith, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior running back and outside linebacker from South Carolina.
"I got a note from his coach that was a pretty good endorsement -- said he never wanted to come off the field and that some of the ACC schools were already keeping tabs on him," Turner said.
One area of contention is at quarterback, where junior Antonio Walton (5-10, 155) is leading a three-man race.
"He's getting the majority [of snaps] in practice," Turner said, "but I have three working there and each brings something different to the table."
The defense will feature linemen David Powell (6-4, 340), Raynard Williamson (6-2, 210) and Edward Duckett (5-11, 235), linebacker Chandler Patrick (6-0, 225) and backs Bobby Hendricks (5-10, 180) and Willie Stewart (5-8, 155).
Red Bank's strength has taken a shot. Dynamite Dozen member Keionta Davis (6-3, 225) suffered a torn ACL and extensive meniscus damage last week and will have surgery Monday.
While the Lions may have a quarterback battle on their hands between Niquia McDuffie (5-9, 155) and Hagen Wilkey (6-3, 215), they have a quality receiver and defensive back in Deres Benn (6-1, 200), another of the area's top college prospects, and a solid line foundation with seniors Ed Coker (6-1, 200) and Randal Lee (6-1, 205) and juniors Jake Parker (5-11, 218) and Tyler Phillips (5-11, 230).
There are those who figure East Hamilton is a playoff contender, but the Hurricanes are still fairly young. Junior running back Logan Jackson is one of a handful of third-year starters in the third-year program.
John Allen became the third head coach in three years at Central and has a group that numbers in the 90s. A key for the Pounders will be the play of quarterback Ladarrius Jackson.
Hixson coach Houston White has the biggest line he's had, and he's putting much of the offensive load on Cameron Hill (6-4, 270) and Christian Varner (6-0, 240).
Brainerd's numbers are down again, but the Panthers have a solid group of skill guys and two tough linebackers in Isaiah Hayes (5-10, 200) and Corey Wiley (5-11, 195).
For the first time in his coaching stint at East Ridge, Mike Martin has a returning quarterback in Demetrius Bumpass (5-9, 160).
Howard is looking for depth in both lines. A standout for the Hustlin' Tigers should be junior lineman Brandon Walters (6-8, 260). They also have a hammer at middle linebacker in Cadarius Harrison (6-1, 244).
District 6-AA at a glance
Team on the rise: East Hamilton. The third-year program expects to contend for at least a playoff berth with a stiff defense (five returning starters) and a returning 1,000-yard rusher in junior Logan Jackson.
Nightmare schedule: East Hamilton opens against Signal Mountain, last year's Class 2A state champion, and goes to District 5-AAA member and neighborhood rival Ooltewah in Week 2. When the Hurricanes finally get home to open a new stadium, they have district foe Central, which is among those picked as a likely postseason participant. They stay at home the next week, but that's to host District 5-AAA favorite Bradley Central. They also play the preseason Nos. 1 and 2 picks, Tyner and Red Bank, on back-to-back weeks (Oct. 14, 21).
Dream schedule: While they play their first three games on the road, Hixson's Wildcats have a midseason home stretch that includes preseason district playoff favorites Red Bank, Tyner and East Hamilton.
Best game: If one of the two favorites stumbled somewhere along the way, Oct. 28 will be the night to make amends when Tyner hosts Red Bank, three weeks after playing at Central. The game could decide the district's top spot. The top two in the standings automatically advance to the playoffs, although Tyner and Howard are in Class 3A and the others are in 4A.
Biggest shoes to fill: Sean Neal did a little bit of everything for Tyner. He ran, he blocked and even played some at quarterback when Travis Jones was hurt. He also had his share of tackles and passes defensed in the secondary. "As a junior I would say Travis was our MVP, but last year I'd have to say Neal. He locked people down on defense, and he always drew the toughest receiver in man-to-man," coach Wayne Turner said. "He was a heck of a running back for us, and then he took over at quarterback when Travis got banged up."
Playoff bound: Tyner, Central, East Hamilton, Red Bank.
Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...
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