Life for Middlesboro has been rough on the football field over the past couple of years. Back-to-back single win seasons have plagued the team. Injuries and dismissals cut the roster short a year ago with the Yellow Jackets finishing the season with a 1-10 record.
With a new year and a different set of skills within their personnel, Middlesboro looks to shift momentum in the opposite direction.
“We’ve talked a lot about improving and taking each week a game at a time,” said Middlesboro coach Zach Massengill. “Obviously the most important is the first one. You want to get out of the gate strong. I know their going to be ready.
“The next few weeks, we’ve really got to attack. We really want to go into the district with a winning record and go in with positive momentum. We play — in my opinion — one of the toughest districts in the state. It’s going to be tough again this year, but we want to go in and compete and try to win a couple of district ball games and try to win a couple of playoff games as well.”
The Jackets will try to swing the pendulum with the help of a new offense. During spring and summer practices, the team begin implementing the option out of a veer look. One of the most important positions out of that scheme is the quarterback, who will be making the necessary reads to operate the offense.
At the moment, there is a quarterback battle between Anthony Jackson and Rhyan Rogers. Both players saw time at quarterback after injuries cut the roster short. Jackson finished the year as the starter, but often used his speed out of the backfield. He finished with a team-high 323 yards and two touchdowns.
“Anthony Jackson has been back there and Rhyan Rogers. They both have good game experience — Anthony more so on the offensive side of the ball,” said Massengill. “Both of them are really good athletes. They’ve picked up on the offense really well. It’s a healthy competition. They like each other and they push each other, and they’re both being good leaders for us. That’s the most important part right now.”
The backfield will also play an important roll in the Middlesboro’s new scheme. Alex Mason returns as one of the leaders out of the backfield from a year ago. He rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
Owen McWilliams also spend the majority of the season lining up out of the backfield. He rushed for 137 yards and one touchdown.
“We’ve got six or seven guys to make two spots. The competition is really good back there,” said Massengill about the running backs. “We’ve got Corey Hairston, Alex Mason, right now Trey Watkins is working in and out, Owen McWilliams, and then a few of the younger guys are competing as well. We fill like we’ve got guys back there that can get the job done.”
On defense, Middlesboro lost their leading tackler from last season, but they return a slew of players that are more than capable of picking up the slack. Senior Taylor McClelland finished the year with 84 tackles. Seniors Ben Bowling and McWilliams combined for 92 tackles, and junior Sebastian Wagoner ended the year with 54 tackles.
In the secondary, the Jackets return all of their interceptions with Hairston, Rogers and Jackson each grabbing two apiece last year.
Massengill said the team needs to improve defensively.
“Defensively, we’ve got to improve and I think part of that is going to be our offense needs to have ball control,” said Massengill. “We return a lot on defense. We were extremely young the last year or two.
“Basically across the board everybody on defense has started now for a year and a half or better. We’re looking for major improvement out of that group.”
The road to improvement isn’t easy for Middlesboro — who competes in arguably the toughest district in Class 2A. District 7 includes Lexington Christian, Danville and Somerset.
The district’s combined record a year ago (absent Middlesboro) was 31-9 with LCA and Danville meeting in the regional championship. Danville advanced to state title game and lost to Christian Academy of Louisville.
The out-of-district schedule looks a little better with opponents holding a combined 32-46 record. Williamsburg and Harlan had the best records a year ago with the Yellow Jackets finishing 7-5 and the Green Dragons holding a 7-4 record.
Middlesboro kicks the regular season off when they travel up U.S. 25E at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 18 to battle Bell County.
Reach Anthony Cloud at 606-302-9090 or on Twitter @AnthonyCloudMDN