HOKES BLUFF SENIORS. Pictured, front row, from left: Dylan Boatner, Ryan Coggins, Austin Roebuck, Matthew Jones, Mikell Mooneyham, Clay Rainey, Darrian Meads, Noah Word, Josh Jones. Back row, from left: Coby Latham, Lake Gilbert, Austin Elder, Pete Jackson, Tucker Marsh, Tristan Billingsley, Ashton Gulledge. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
With the Darrian Meads Era entering its bell lap, Hokes Bluff head football coach Mike Robertson is well aware that much of the Eagles’ 2019 season’s success hinges upon the health and performance of the 6-foot, 220-pound senior halfback.
Meads’ 2018 production included 2,634 rushing yards for a 9.1 average and 34 touchdowns while helping the Eagles go 11-2 record and earn a third straight trip to the Class 4A state quarterfinals.
For his career, he has rushed for 6,511 yards and scored 79 touchdowns. Following the season, Meads was named first team All-State for the third straight year, was an ASWA Class 4A Back of the Year finalist and was selected Overall MVP of the All-Messenger football team.
“That’s probably the main thing, to keep Darrian on the field,” said Robertson. “He’s obviously one of our best players, and he’s proven that. It’s important that you keep your top horses running.”
Rejoining Meads in the offensive backfield is senior quarterback Ashton Gulledge, a second-team All-State selection who last year passed for 1,136 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also rushed for 396 yards and nine TDs. Unlike most Class 4A signal-callers, Gulledge was a two-way starter. He had 47 tackles from his strong safety position and played the second half of the season with an injured arm. In addition, junior Hunter Burke returns at fullback.
“Ashton and Darrian give us a good one-two punch,” said Robertson. “Ashton’s a tough cookie who didn’t use that [injury] as an excuse. He’s healed up and ready to go. Ashton’s got exceptional instincts.”
Gulledge must find some new targets after losing his top three receivers.
“That a big priority for us,” said Robertson. “(Senior) Coby Latham has finally gotten a growth spurt. I think we’ll have a little bit of a dropoff in experience in that area, but I think that once these guys get some playing time, they’ll be capable.”
Another returning senior is Tristan Billingsley, who is back at tight end.
“By the end of last year, we were able to go to Tristan to make some plays, so hopefully we can get him a few more touches this year. He also blocks well, which helps tremendously.”
The offensive line took a big hit with the loss of All-State performers Jack Busch and Houston Edwards, along with Patrick Vest.
“Jack and Houston were also our two best defensive linemen, so we really have to find four starters,” said Robertson. “Those were two dominant players and will be hard to replace.”
Senior Pete Jackson returns at tackle, and Roberson looks for senior center Matthew Jones, junior tackle Austin Blevins and junior guard Tyler Weaver to help fill the void up front.
Another bright spot on the defense is junior Will Clemons, who led in tackles last season with 110 stops at middle linebacker. Burke is back at linebacker.
“We expect big things from Will and Hunter this year,” said Robertson, who added that Meads will see time at linebacker as the season progresses.
Senior end Austin Elder (58 tackles, four sacks) anchors a defensive line that includes senior Dylan Boatner.
The secondary is a work in progress with three new starters in Latham, senior Clay Rainey and sophomore Tucker Griffin alongside Gulledge.
“We had some big leads in a few games last year that we were able to play those three guys, so hopefully that will help them this season.”
Gulledge will also be the punter, while senior Josh Jones will kick.
Robertson once again views Class 4A Region 6 as the “SEC Central Division” with Anniston, Ashville, Cherokee County, Cleburne County, Jacksonville, One-onta and White Plains.
“I think this region is the most balanced it’s been in a while. I think Jacksonville’s the team to beat, and Heflin (Cleburne County) and White Plains could be the sleepers. Anniston has a good group of athletes, and Oneonta lost some players has some good ones back. I do feel fortunate to have 64 players this year, which is pretty good for Hokes Bluff.”