Elizabethton’s football team has a chip on its shoulder — and that’s perfectly fine with head coach Shawn Witten.
Using the motivation from a disappointing second-round playoff loss to Austin-East and a second-place finish in conference play, Elizabethton entered the offseason with a blazing fury.
“We’re a little bit of the underdog right now,” said Witten, whose team finished the 2011 season with an 8-4 mark. “We didn’t win the championship last year and we kind of got knocked out of the playoffs earlier than we wanted to. The guys have been working with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.”
Thus far, results are paying off as Witten has seen many positives from his squad in its 10 days of training.
“We’ve had a productive spring,” Witten said. “We’ve got a number of guys who are out there and we’ve got all of our spring sports guys who finished up practice. We had a productive 10 days and had two great scrimmages against two big schools. We’re excited about where we are, we’ve just got to have a great summer and have everybody here back in the fall too.”
The Cyclones have had strong numbers during spring workouts, particularly from its rising freshman class. The team is deeper in a number of positions, particularly the offensive and defensive lines and that was a point of emphasis going into the session according to the head coach.
“We’ve got great numbers,” said Witten. “Coach (Josh) Boatman’s done a great job with our freshman football team. We’ve got all of those guys back for next year. This is probably the first time in six years we’ve got a lot of lineman depth, which is good. We feel pleased about that.
“We’ve got some young guys we’ve got to continue to develop but the key is for spring football is building that depth and getting those young guys some reps. That’s what we try to do. We had a big ninth-grade class last year and are looking for big things out of them as they continue. And hopefully they can help our varsity football team.”
Elizabethton began spring training with stronger players up front and quicker players in the skill positions.
As soon as the regular season ended, the Cyclones opened the weight room for offseason workouts and the players showed strong commitment from day one. Particularly in a dominating scrimmage effort against Jefferson County Friday, Elizabethton showed a lot of growth in the areas of strength and speed.
“We’re in their busting it, working hard and building strength to get bigger, faster and stronger,” Witten said. “We’ve had some impressive numbers we’ve been able to put up. Our interior linemen have had some great numbers and we have a number of guys who are benching over 300 pounds and squatting over 500 pounds.
“We’ve kind of taken our strength program to another level. All of our guys are 100 percent committed. Our daily attendance is been great. Our big guys are getting stronger and our skill guys are getting faster.”
This spring, the Cyclones began the transitional phase of replacing 11 seniors from last year’s squad including starting quarterback McKenly Berry, leading lineman Matt Smith, top tackler Luke Nidiffer and receivers Chad Pritchard, Wes Montgomery and Zach Treadway.
The receiving and defensive back department has been a big focus and Adam Bowers is a player that brings experience to the young squad.
“We lost a bunch of wide receivers,” Witten said. “Adam’s a senior that’s going to come in and play some receiver and corner. We lost a number of guys in those positions. He gives us the experience there.”
The Cyclones will utilize the tight end position more going forward, shifting rising seniors Kaleb Walters and Luke Blanton into the role alongside Brad Kelly, John Perkins and Michael Fowler, who had some experience at the spot a year ago.
“We moved some guys in to give us some tight end looks,” said Witten. “The last couple of years we’ve had one or two tight ends, now we’ve got five or six tight ends. We’re pleased to add that to our offense — something we haven’t had the last couple of years. We’ve got a lot of friendly competition going on at a lot of positions, building depth and also our guys are competing for starting positions.”
One of the battles is for quarterback, where rising senior D.J. Arnett and sophomore Caleb Armstrong are vying to replace the role Berry had success at.
“Our quarterback right now has got to play within the system,” said Witten. “He’s got some guys around him, he’s got some good linemen, he’s got some good backs, he’s just got to go in there and manage the game as we go along. Those quarterbacks have got to be who they are. They don’t have to go in there and fill McKenly’s footsteps.”
With prominent rushers Terrence Turner and Ethan Thomas returning to the squad this fall, on top of a big number in linemen, Elizabethton will emphasize its ground game more going forward.
Landon Pearson and Jacob Woodby are two guys that have gotten some reps with the ball in the backfield this spring. Zach Moore, who had some quality carries one year ago, will also contribute but will be balancing between receiver and runner.
“We’re trying to get some guys some versatility there,” Witten said. “Terrence and Ethan have that speed, and Landon and Woodby have that ability to go inside.”
Witten made it a point to praise the spring sports athletes who joined the football team immediately following the end of their seasons to commit towards the team’s growth and improvement as the summer and 2012 season nears.
“All of our guys have been working out,” the coach added. “That shows commitment, that shows dedication and these guys are fired up to work this summer. We’ve got to do a good job of getting them where they need to be in the summer. All things considered, we’ve still got a lot of work to do but we’re definitely excited about the direction we’re headed.”