By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Etowah no doubt suffered key losses from graduation, but the 2017 Blue Devils possess a good amount of firepower on both sides of the ball.
“In high school ball, you do what have to do to adapt to what your team’s strengths are,” said head coach Drew Noles. “The biggest thing we’ve talked about all summer is that effort always beats talent. When you have talent that works as hard as it can, than you’ve got something great.”
After dropping the season opener to Etowah County rival Southside, the 2016 Blue Devils reeled off eight straight wins and advanced to the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs. Head coach Drew Noles admits that injuries took their toll on the Blue Devils, especially late in the season.
“I thought we had a really good year,” said Noles. “The kids got into really good rhythm practice-wise and our coaches did a great job. The biggest thing is that we handled adversity really well with so many injuries with such a brutal schedule. We had the mentality of the next man up.”
One of the 2017 greenhorns will be at quarterback, a position manned last year by University of Arkansas signee Daulton Hyatt, who threw for 25 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards.
Sophomore DeRickey Wright will be under center, with freshman Brady Troup as the backup.
“We’ll be young at that position, but both kids are really good athletes and we’ve got a lot of confidence in them,” said Noles.
The Blue Devils are run-based team, however, and the Attalla squad has a pair of experienced senior running backs in Cory Thomas, who ran for 1,450 yards and 15 touchdowns last season; and Caleb Horton, who finished with over 1,000 combined yards rushing and receiving.
“Those guys complement each other very well,” said Noles. “They’re different types of backs and have different styles of running. It makes it easier to hand it off to those guys with a first-year quarterback. Caleb also gives us some flexibility on the defensive side of the ball.”
Junior receiver Emil Smith last year caught a team-high 40 passes for 700 yards and seven touchdowns. He was selected to the ASWA All-State second team. He also had 26 tackles and two interceptions on defense. Juniors Justin Harris and DeAundrea Wiliams are also back at receiver, along with transfer Evan Jones.
“Emil’s a great player, and DeAundrea had a great second half of the year,” said Noles. “We have seven or eight guys there who we feel can play on Friday nights, so (receiver) is one of the strengths of our team.”
Center is another position that will feature a newcomer in place of four-year starter and three-time All-State selection Peyton Nance. A pair of three-year starters are back on the line in senior Dylan Carden and Seth Lowery, as well as Trey Cole.
“We lost of lot of guys off that unit and we wound up playing some guys last year that probably weren’t ready to play,” said Noles. “We’ve go some experienced guys back but it’s still an issue for us.”
Junior Alex Howard, who filled in on the O-line late last year, will play tight end and defensive end.
“Alex is a very unselfish player who did what was best for the team last season,” said Noles. “He’s a super kid who is one of those guys that you wish you had a bunch of. He never says a word and just works hard. He’s strong and he’s a good athlete and he wants what’s best for our team.”
Defensively, the Blue Devils return top-flight talent with senior cornerback Emaje Graves, junior defensive end Jamin Graham (32 tackles, 12 for loss, six sacks in 2016), junior linebacker Carter Dingler (60 tackles, eight for a loss, three sacks) and junior cornerback Justin Harris (39 tackles, 22 pass break-ups, two interceptions).
“We feel that Emaje, Justin, Emil and Evan Jones have the potential to be athletically a great defensive backfield,” said Noles. “Any time that you’re solid in the secondary, it allows you to do more stuff up front.”
Back for his third year at kicker is senior Raul Hernandez, who last season made 3-of-5 field goal attempts and 52 of 57 extra points.
“Raul is a great kid and a great teammate who works hard,” said Noles. “We’re excited to have him back.”
Alexandria, Arab, Boaz, Crossville, Douglas, Guntersville and Scottsboro comprise Etowah’s Region 7 competition.
“Scottsboro and Alexandria should be strong, and Arab’s the only team in the region that has its quarterback back,” said Noles. “The rest of the teams should be much improved. It’s going to be a tough schedule but it’s a fun schedule.”
Assistant coaches are David Rose, Russ Pilkington, head coach Drew Noles, Skylar Ray, Dex Vines, Judd Proctor, Raheem Gibbs, Jamison Wadley, Ryan Carter, Matthew Bone and Eric Breitweiser.