2017 Football Preview: Blue Devils Confident They Can Repeat Success Of 2016
Last updated 8/16/2017 at 8:35pm
It took just two seasons for Brevard head football coach Craig Pritchett to turn the Blue Devils from a team fresh off an 0-11 season and mired in a winless streak that dated nearly two years into a team that won a share of the conference championship and earned a second round birth in the 2A playoffs.
Now, the challenge becomes replicating that success after losing nearly his entire starting offense, as well as key playmakers on the defense and special teams.
However, as daunting as that may seem to some, Pritchett isn't looking to take a step back in 2017 and is ready for his players to show they're more than capable of keeping up their winning ways.
"There's still a lot of excitement coming off last season. I'm sure there's a little bit of doubt out there when you lose a three-year starting quarterback, three-year starting running back and three-year starting wide receiver. Some people might look at it from the outside and say it's a rebuilding year, but we've got some great players coming back. Our three linebackers are going to lead the defense. I think our offensive and defensive line will be a little bit better, but the goal of any program is to reload. We don't think this is going to be a rebuilding year," he said.
The quarterback, running back and wide receiver he referenced were Tanner Ellenberger, Tanner Petit and Nick Cabe – all of whom graduated.
Those three served as the cornerstones for Brevard's resurgence over the past three seasons.
Despite those losses, however, the cupboard is far from bare going into this season.
The Blue Devils return the core of their defense and new skill position players on offense could make a big impact.
Last year, the offense lit up the scoreboard every week and dominated the headlines. But it's important to note that over their final five games against conference opponents, Brevard allowed just 26 total points – including a string of three straight shutouts.
A big part of that success was the play of the Blue Devils' linebacking corps: Ethan Shook, Kyle Williams and Stevi Benjamin, all of whom are seniors this year.
"Those three guys have great attitudes and play football at a high level," Pritchett said. "They're our leaders on defense and are going to make the bulk of the plays. It's great to have those guys back at the key position of linebacker that is probably the hardest on defense."
Shook led the team with 163 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss, and was named the WNC Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Benjamin finished with 106 total tackles, including 12 for a loss, and tied for the team-high with three sacks.
Williams' season was cut short due to injury, but he still managed nearly eight tackles per game.
Presuming the offense isn't going to put up 35-42 points a week, the defense will be the backbone for Brevard this season, which is just what a defensive-minded coach like Pritchett wants.
"Defense is always important. Last year, with the offensive fireworks, the defense got overshadowed a little bit, but in the bulk of conference play they were shutting teams out or holding them to single digits, which is huge. The defense needs to play with a chip on their shoulder, and I think the defense is going to lead this team," Pritchett said.
The defensive line returns several key pieces, including Ashton Landreth and Kohl Padgett, and also adds some juniors that could play an impact, like Kane Deshauteurs.
It's the offense that is part of a major makeover.
Except for junior wide receiver Luke Ellenberger, Brevard doesn't return any skill position players that saw a lot of playing time in 2016.
That includes quarterback Mitchell Johnson, who enters his first season as a varsity starter, and Benjamin, who carried the ball just 30 times in 2016, but showed flashes of speed and an ability to break off big plays.
However, Brevard does have some new weapons on offense that could make Johnson's job easier.
Breylan Owens and Aiden Green both provide big targets at receiver, with Owens standing at 6'2" and Green towering at 6'4".
Pritchett said he's hoping their skill set transfers from the hardwood of the basketball court to the gridiron.
"It's great to have length. I love having those long, athletic guys. Coach (David) Siniard has been a great asset for our program by encouraging those guys to come out. If you've got guys who are 6'2", 6'3", 6'4" on the football field they can cover a lot of ground," he said.
With Benjamin and Shook splitting carries, and speedy backs like Anjel Whitesides providing relief, Brevard's offense could be surprisingly potent.
The Blue Devils also bring back almost their entire offensive line from last year.
That being said, Pritchett isn't looking to overload his new quarterback and wants to maintain a good balance of run and pass.
"We're not going to ask Mitchell to do some of the things we asked Tanner to do. (Cont. on Page 7A)
So, the play-calling will be a little bit different, but we're not going to get too fancy," he said.
One piece of the team that might go overlooked is replacing departing senior Samuel Kicklighter – who was the WNCAC Special Teams (Cont. on Page 7A)
Kicklighter's big leg regularly booted balls into the end zone on kickoffs, pinning teams deep in their own territory and denying the possibility for big returns.
He was equally effective on punts, with a net of 34.7 yards per kick and pinning teams inside their own 20-yard line nine times.
Add that to a PAT conversion rate of 90 percent and a 5-9 showing on field goals and those are big shoes to fill.
The job seems to rest on the foot of Green, who was the kickoff, punt and field goal man during Brevard's scrimmage against Pickens last Friday.
Pritchett said Green is still working into the position replacing Kicklighter showed just how important special teams can be.
"It's tough when you lose a weapon like Samuel Kicklighter who can kick it in the end zone, which is something people may not realize how important that was. But it's going well and we've got some great players on the coverage team," he said.
Last season, the Blue Devils finished the regular season 9-2 and looked unstoppable at times.
They took down previously undefeated Pisgah, 23-17, in a classic at home in the season finale to earn a split of the conference championship and came up just short of a third round 2A playoff birth after falling to North Rowan.
After departing the WNCAC for the new Mountain Six, things won't get any easier.
Five of the six teams in the conference made the playoffs last season, including three that finished with 10 wins or more and two that made the third round of the playoffs.
Suffice to say, there won't be an easy game on Brevard's conference schedule.
"It's going to be highly competitive," Pritchett said of the Mountain Six.
After nearly a decade of mediocrity, 2016's Blue Devil team captured its fan base by storm.
Pritchett led his team to the top of the heap, but heavy lies the crown.
However, he's confident in his players and hasn't tempered his expectations.
"Last year we had an awesome season and we were able to get a share of that conference title, so we're going to be battling for another conference title this year. The expectation is to play our kind of football, even with the kids that people may not know yet. We want to play an exciting style of football with a physical defense. We had a great offseason in the weight room. Our kids are bigger, stronger and faster. We lost some great players, but we've got some great players that are stepping up to give us some weapons. So, it's going to be an exciting season," Pritchett said.