After drubbing Dadeville 33-0 in Week 9 in the game that decided the Class 4A, Region 3 title, Clay Central lost two of its final three games. The Volunteers fell to eventual Class 3A state champion Madison Academy 33-7 on the road in Week 10 then Charles Henderson downed Clay Central 13-0 at Troy in the second round of the playoffs.
“I think it’s important for this team to get started off on the right foot right out of the gate because of the way some things went toward the end last year,” said new head coach Kris Herron, who moved up from defensive coordinator in the off-season when Steve Giddens became principal of the second-year school. “We need to have some success early to hopefully build on down the road.”
Herron has inherited a team with only two returning starters on offense and three on defense so the Volunteers need some time to gain experience playing together when games are on the line. Their opening game on the road against Trinity Presbyterian and a Week 5 meeting at home against Munford will be challenges but neither is a region contest. Clay Central’s two most critical region games will come in Week 7 at home against Handley and in Week 9 at Dadeville.
“We got a lot of experience last year playing most everybody because in so many games we would establish a lead and get these guys in but it’s a lot different playing from when the first kickoff happens and when the game’s already in hand,” Herron noted.
On defense, Herron favors a five-man front with two linebackers. The nose guard will be junior D.J. Denny. Senior DeAndre Wills, one of the returning starters, will be at one tackle and junior Colby Robinson at the other. Herron said Robinson has had the team’s best preseason practices and is poised to be an impact player. At the ends will be senior Aaron Boyd and junior JoJo Staples. Junior Tim Henry will be the first reserve at tackle and nose and sophomore Marcus Heflin the backup at end.
Payton Reynolds, a starter at linebacker last year, returns and will be joined by senior Ryan James. Sophomore Bobby Carter will be the first linebacker off the sideline.
Anthony Wood, a senior, returns at rover where he started in 2012. Joining Wood in the secondary are fellow seniors Lamonyn Burney and Chris Brisky as the cornerbacks and junior Jaylen Lyles at safety. Senior Deidric Rutledge is the reserve.
“Actually, the strength of the defense right now to me is the secondary,” said Herron.
Clay Central will be a ground-oriented team running from the ‘I’ and from spread formations with an occasional dose of the familiar wishbone mixed in. Wood will quarterback and Herron predicts he will have success with play action and roll out passes of short to medium range.
James will be the fullback and Lyles the tailback. When the Volunteers go wishbone, Staples will be the third running back.
Wills returns at tight end. In the wishbone, Reynolds will play the other tight end. At split end and flanker, the Vols will go with a rotation of Brisky, Rutledge, Logan Cooper and D.J. Ford. Ford and Cooper are sophomores.
Sophomore Dawson Taylor will anchor the line at center. Senior Nic Lett returns to start at left guard for the second year. Robinson will start at left tackle. On Taylor’s right will be Boyd at guard and Denny at tackle. Denny also serves as the reserve at center. Justin Denney will be the backup at guard and Tre Kidd at tackle. Each is a junior.
The kicking game will feature Isaac Andrews for extra points and field goals with Taylor snapping and J.T. Burns holding. Lyles will handle kickoffs and Wills is the punter.
Despite its lack of size and lack of experience, Herron believes the work ethic this year’s team has displayed will pay dividends.
“We’ve tried to tell them that in any success we have effort is going to be a huge thing. We’re not as big as a lot of the folks we’re gong to play. We’re probably not as athletic as some of the people we’ll play but if we can play with great effort and the right attitude then we’re going to give ourselves a chance and I think this team’s going to do that,” he said.