Veteran linemen will be the ‘heartbeat of our team’
By Steve Williams
Halls High School’s football coaching staff will be leaning heavily on its veteran offensive and defensive linemen to lead the way in 2023.
“They are going to be the heartbeat of our team, so to speak,” said Brent Hughes, the Red Devils’ second-year head coach.
“A lot of the linemen have started since they were sophomores. They’re big and a lot of them have changed their bodies and gotten more in shape in the weight room.
“The thing that separates them in my opinion is that they are very smart. And a lot of those kids – they are not just good football players – they are great young men in the classroom, as citizens and in the community.”
Hughes said offensive line coach Chase Slaven has done a great job with them the last two years. “You can just see that the cohesiveness is there. It’s their turn to have that special senior year. And that’s what we want. I think they’re up to the challenge of understanding that our team is going to go as they go. And I think they own that.”
Looking ahead, Hughes believes if the Red Devils can run the football and protect their quarterback and stop the run and get to the opponents’ quarterback, they are going to have a successful season.
“If we struggle on those things, then we are going to struggle on the field and have to get creative,” he said. “That’s kind of where we’re at as a football team.”
Halls finished 2-9 last season, but its record was deceiving.
“Four or five of our games last year were lost by a possession,” Hughes pointed out.
The Red Devils’ wins came against Cocke County and Heritage. They lost to Daniel Boone in the first round of the playoffs.
Halls has seven returning starters on offense, led by senior linemen Jackson Alvey and Nick Goodwin. Amari Lethgo, who started at quarterback as a freshman, also is back. A lot of the team’s skill players will be sophomores and juniors.
“Our hope is that we allow our young guys enough time to groom and continue to adapt to the speed of high school football,” said Coach Hughes. “With a lot of experience those guys got last year, hopefully they can take the next step this season and be more comfortable.”
Halls returns eight starters on defense, including three senior linemen up front in Caleb Turner, Gavin Cameron and Noah Burgin.
Other returnees include inside linebackers Hunter Toney, a junior, and Kameron Bates, a senior, plus outside LB Brody Rogers, who played a lot as a freshman last season.
“We also return twins Gavin and Michael Harrop in the secondary,” said Hughes. “They are senior skill players that lead our backend and are just great kids.”
Gabe Holmes, who started last season as freshman, also returns at cornerback.
“We feel good about the product that we are going to be able to put out there,” said Hughes. “It’s just right now we’re searching for depth in a lot of areas. There’s going to be some freshmen that are going to help provide us depth.
“I like to find freshmen early and throw them to the fire to get them ready,” added Hughes. “I’ve done that every year since I’ve been at Halls, just because you never know what you’re going to need. I try to find that talent early and really try to groom it for the future. It allows those kids to find a role on our football team.
“Like last year, for example, halfway through the season Holmes ended up being one of our best cornerbacks and he was a freshman. He returns this year and he’s going to be a special football player.”
As for special teams, senior Owen Taylor should be a weapon for Halls as its placekicker and punter. “He’s really improved and he’s got an opportunity to go and play college ball somewhere,” said Hughes.
The Red Devils lost two of their top skill players – WR/DBs Camden Johnson and Nolan Faust – to graduation.
“Those were two others we knew would be special early and we threw them to the fire as freshmen,” said Coach Hughes. “Both are in the Top 5 in receiving in school history.”
Halls will play its season opener at home against Campbell County on Aug. 17 in a Rivalry Thursday TV game.
Ex-Vol Mitchell is Halls’ new DC
Former Tennessee defensive end Xavier Mitchell has joined Halls’ coaching staff as its defensive coordinator. He also played in the Canadian Football League.
“Coach Xavier Mitchell is probably one of the smartest football coaches that I’ve gotten to coach with,” said Halls Head Coach Brent Hughes. “He’s a guy that you respect because he has played the game at the highest level and the thing that separates him from a lot of people is he always puts the players first before himself, before anybody else and I admire the heck out of that.
“He’s making a difference already on our football team as he’s still continuing to adjust and learn not just our kids, but our coaches as well. So we are super excited to have him here and know he is going to do good things for us as well.”
Hughes, who was Halls’ defensive coordinator for three years prior to becoming head coach, will be the team’s offensive coordinator, replacing Tanner Williams, who left the program.