By Donovan Stewart
Brentwood Academy enters the season as the top-ranked team in the state according to MaxPreps.com Can the Eagles live up to the lofty expectations?
The program has plenty of talent, but can it get it done with the target on its back in Division II?
Fellow Mid-State teams Montgomery Bell Academy (defending champ), Nashville’s Ensworth and Father Ryan, as well as Memphis University School, Baylor and McCallie are there to challenge.
Preseason Top Five
1. Brentwood Academy Eagles (11-2, state runner up)
Head Coach- Ralph Potter
State Titles- 10, 1974 in Class A, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1988, 1991 in Class AA, 1995, 1996 in Class 5A, 2006 in Division II-AA.
Top Players- Cody Nelson, QB, Jr., Josh Tate, RB, Jr., Victor Caro, RB, Soph.,
Weldon Garlington, WR, Soph., Josh Pleasant, WR, Soph., Jackson Boyd, WR, Sr.,
DJ Luna, WR, Sr., Wesley Sherrill, OL, Sr., Taylor Brashear, C, Sr., Alex Bullard, Sr.,OT, Thad McHaney, DE/TE, Sr., Ryan Carruthers, DT, Sr., Barry Dabney, DT, Sr, Ishmael Lewis, DT, Jr., Melvin Pryor, LB, Sr., Justin Cash, DB, Jr., Jeremy Martin, FS, Sr.
Strengths- Defense. The Eagles will need to rely on their defense until the offense comes around. BA has the best defensive line in the state with monsters Thad McHaney (DE), Ryan Carruthers (DT), Barry Dabney (DT) and Ishamel Lewis (DT). Senior linebacker Melvin Pryor is a tackling machine that goes sideline-to-sideline. Justin Cash is a ball hawk and free safety Jeremy Martin is a head hunter.
Concerns- Offense. Although the Eagles return eight on offense, they are young at the skill positions. Quarterback Cody Nelson and running back Josh Tate are juniors while big play wide receivers Weldon Garlington and Josh Pleasant are sophomores. BA’s mass up front should help and benefit the youngsters.
2. Montgomery Bell Academy Big Red (13-0, state champions)
Head Coach- Daniel McGugin
State Titles- 6, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007 in Division II-AA, 2002, 2003 in Division II-AAA.
Top Players- Wesley Johnson, OL, Sr., Scott Bubis, DL, Sr., Joseph Sloan, TE/DL, Sr., Barrett Jacques, LB, Sr., Reggie Ford, DB, Sr., Patrick Crum, RB, Sr., Owen Lipscomb, OL, Sr., Spencer Wise, QB, Sr., Hooper Paty, WR, Sr., Andrew Fletcher, PK, Jr, Drew Turner, TE, Jr.
Strengths- The Big Red lost 32 seniors from last year’s state title team but they still have enough talent returning to make a repeat run. The offensive line should be in good shape as seniors Wesley Johnson and Owen Lipscomb will return as will tight end Joseph Sloan and transfer Drew Turner should make an impact. Junior kicker Andrew Fletcher is a big weapon for MBA, especially in a close game.
Concerns- The Big Red had a big coaching turnover as two assistants were lost to rival Brentwood Academy, including defensive coordinator Floyd Elliott and defensive backs coach Jamie Redmond. Also lost were James Counce Sr. and James Jr., who both went back to Dyersburg.
3. Ensworth Tigers (9-3, semifinalist)
Head Coach- Ricky Bowers
State Titles- None
Top Players- Tavares Jefferson, QB/RB/DB, Sr., Orleans Opoku-Darwa, RB/DB, Jr., Jacob Carter, WR/DB, Sr., Will Netterville, C/DT, Sr., David Davis, OT/DT, Sr., Sam Cooper, TE/DE, Jr., Watson Sweat, OG/LB, Sr., Malcolm Grigsby, FB/LB, Jr., Rodney Anderson, DB/RB, Soph., Daniel McFadden, TE/DB, Jr., Antonio Richardson, DT, Soph.
Strengths- The backfield duo of Tavares Jefferson (QB) and Orleans Opoku-Darwa (RB). Jefferson, a converted running back, will line up behind center to play quarterback while Opoku-Darwa will be the lead back in Ricky Bowers’ offense. The transfer of mammoth sophomore nose tackle Antonio Richardson (6-3, 320) will give the Tigers a run stopper in the middle of their defense.
Concerns- While Jefferson is one heck of an athlete, can he really throw the football? Last season teams that beat Ensworth stopped the run and made the Tigers beat them through the air. Look for teams to employ the same strategy.
4. Memphis University School Owls (7-4, quarterfinals)
Head Coach- Bobby Alston
State Titles- 3, 1985 in Class AA, 2004, 2005 in Division II-AAA
Top Players- Barry Brunetti, QB, Jr., Walt Wepfer, RB, Sr., Will Stokes, LB, Sr., Taylor Reed, WR, Sr., Michael Folk, WR, Sr., Joel Moss, DL, Sr., Jack Steffner, DL, Sr., Walter Barnett, LB, Sr., Harrison Martin, DL, Jr., Barry Hillyer, DB, Sr., Lowell Hays, DB, Sr., Stephond Allmond, RB, Jr.
Strengths- The Owls have a ton of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, starting with junior quarterback Barry Brunetti. Beside Brunetti, running back Walt Wepher and wide receivers Taylor Reed and Michael Folk are big-time weapons for the Owls. Senior linebacker Will Stokes and lineman Joel Moss will lead the Owl defense.
Concerns- The good news about the MUS schedule is the Owls have seven home games. The bad news is how brutal the first three games are as they start with Memphis Melrose in at the Bridges Classic at the Liberty Bowl, face superstar running back Gabriel Hunter and Kingsbury next and host Mississippi powerhouse Olive Branch in the third week.
5. Father Ryan Fighting Irish (9-3, semifinalist)
Head Coach- Bruce Lussier
State Titles- 2, 1974 in Class AAA, 1997 in Division II-Large
Top Players- Sean Conway, OL, Sr., Anthony Wilson, RB, Sr., Mitchell Stoffer, QB/DB, Sr., Trey McPhail, QB/DB, Jr., Tagbo Obi, TE, Sr., Mitchell Burns, WR, Sr., Mick Cohan, OL, Jr., Patrick Marchetti, WR, Sr., Nick Bateman, RB, Jr., Nick Pollard, PK, Jr., Will Donnelly, LB, Sr., Frank Hand, LB, Sr., Tyler Kincaid, DB, Jr.
Strengths- The Fighting Irish should be solid in the secondary with ball hawks Tyler Kincaid (4 interceptions), Trey McPhail and Mitchell Stoffer. Father Ryan will have a good group of receivers with seniors Mitchell Burns and Patrick Marchetti leading the way. Junior kicker Nick Pollard will be a weapon.
Concerns – Who is going to play quarterback for the Fighting Irish? So far no one has stepped up as junior Trey McPhail, senior Mitchell Stoffer and junior Jackson Coursey continue to battle for the job. The Irish will need to settle on someone soon as the season approaches quickly.
5 More That Could Surprise
Baylor, Briarcrest, Battle Ground Academy, Christian Brothers, McCallie
Five Big Division II Questions
1. Does MBA have enough talent to go back-to-back? The Big Red lost 32 seniors from last year’s state title team. Most programs couldn’t recover from that, but MBA still has enough horses to contend.
2. Can Briarcrest contend with MUS and Christian Brothers under first-year coach Major Wright? The Saints are 10-20 in the three seasons in Division II-Large and have watched as MUS and Christian Brothers have had big success. But Wright brings a new enthusiasm and work ethic to Briarcrest that it hasn’t had in a while. Expect them to give MUS and Christian Brothers all they want this year.
3. Does Ensworth take the next step following a semifinal appearance last season? The Tigers made a big playoff splash last season in their first playoffs appearance by going to Memphis in the quarterfinal round and beating Christian Brothers before bowing to Brentwood Academy in the semifinals. Ensworth has a ton of talent returning, including the dynamic backfield of Tavares Jefferson (QB) and Orleans Opoku-Darwa (RB). Add in transfer Antonio Richardson, and the Tigers should be a lot of fun to watch.
4. Can Brentwood Academy handle the favorite tag? The Eagles are the favorites this season hands down, but they were the favorites last season, too. Special teams play killed them in both losses to rival MBA. BA returns a ton on both sides of the ball, including a defensive front that looks like a college team. The way the Eagles respond to the target on their back will dictate their season.
5. Can Pope John Paul II bounce back after a disappointing first season in Division II-Large? The Knights joined Division II-Large last season and found out how the big boys played as they went 1-9 after making four straight playoff appearances in Division II-AA.
But coach Jeff Brothers has some big time weapons in battering ram running back Wesley Tate, an underappreciated back that just gets the job done and 6-3 wide receiver Devin Wilson, who can score anytime he touches the ball. The biggest question for the Knights comes on defense, where they allowed 439 points a year ago.
Other Division II-AA Superlatives
Toughest Shoes To Fill- Ben Bartholomew, FB/LB, MBA. The 2007 Mr. Football Back of the Year didn’t put up gaudy numbers but what he did for his fellow running backs from a blocking standpoint cannot be replaced. He was also a manchild at linebacker for the Big Red.
Best Coaching Hire- Major Wright, Briarcrest. Wright is the reason that the Briarcrest faithful is so excited after going 4-6, 2-8 and 4-6 since coming into Division II-Large three seasons ago. Wright is an offensive guy that loves to throw the football in a spread offense, having stud recruits in quarterback Chris Campbell and offensive tackle Austin Long will make that transition easy.
Best Rivalries- Brentwood Academy-Montgomery Bell Academy, Baylor-McCallie, Christian Brothers-Memphis University School, Father Ryan-Pope John Paul II
Players Worth Price of Admission- Alex Bullard, OT, Brentwood Academy, Thad McHaney, DE/TE, Brentwood Academy, Barry Dabney, DT, Brentwood Academy, Wesley Johnson, OL, MBA, Tavares Jefferson, QB, Ensworth, Orleans Opoku-Darwa, RB, Ensworth, Barry Brunetti, QB, MUS, Sean Conway, OL, Father Ryan, Chris Campbell, QB, Briarcrest, Austin Long, OL, Briarcrest, Wesley Tate, RB, JPII, Devin Wilson, WR, JPII, Jamal Ramsey, QB, Battle Ground Academy, Jay Fullam, SS, McCallie, Brett Murray, WR, Baylor.
Donovan Stewart can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org