After struggling through a disappointing 2-8 season in 2011 (2-3 Mountain East Conference), the Unaka Rangers have made some changes that head coach Steve McKinney feels will make the squad much improved in 2012.
“We hired strength and conditioning coach Chris Collins, who we feel will make our team stronger and better conditioned,” McKinney said. “We had good turnouts for the weight program in off-season workouts. I think we will be strong up front, especially with several players returning from the offensive and defensive line.”
Last season the offense was anemic as sophomore quarterback Michael Nave struggled in his first season under center — and the Rangers scored just 71 points for the season. The Rangers’ scoring high came when they defeated Hancock County 20-9 in week seven to improve to 2-1, 2-4 overall at that point.
In that contest, Nave threw for a season-high 139 yards and two scores while senior fullback Corey Pierce rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Nave looked solid in spring practices according to McKinney, who said there might be competition for the position going into the fall.
“Nave looked good in the spring, but we concentrated more on the defense in spring practices and in-house scrimmages,” McKinney added. “We did not have a lot of skill position players at the spring practices since they played other sports as well. I expect to have two or three compete at quarterback for us in the fall.”
Pierce has graduated, but McKinney still expects the fullback position to be a strength for Unaka this coming season with Dylan Green stepping in to replace the three year-starter.
Up front, the Rangers will have senior Weston Colbaugh, James Grindstaff, Ethan Estep, Thomas Hardin and Joe Oliver as the mainstays on both offense and defense.
Among the returnees will be Eli Rasnick at defensive back and receiver, and Austin Anderson on the other side of the defensive backfield — and at receiver and tailback. Andy Guinn, who sparked the Rangers toward the end of the season at tailback, also returns, and Ryan Peel is in the backfield mix.
Junior Tyler Carrier looked solid a tight end and linebacker for Unaka during the spring drills. Jacob Hill and Brett Crawford were players McKinney mentioned as returning players come fall.
“I purposely didn’t set up any scrimmages with other schools in the spring,” McKinney said. “I wanted to have a good look at what I had and did not want to have any injury issues. We had some light contact drills, but we really worked a lot on our fundamentals and technique, which is so important, especially along the line.
“Weight training and getting in better condition is going to help us a lot. We let down and got tired in the fourth quarter of games last year, and I would like to see us as strong in the fourth quarter as we are in the first quarter. That’s what weight training and conditioning is all about.”
As far as other changes the team made, one is a cosmetic change in the uniforms as Unaka will wear white helmets this season with maroon logo and trim.
“It gives us a different look,” said McKinney. “It may or may not mean much at all, but sometimes a change can give a team a different outlook. I expect our conference to be as tough as ever with Hampton still looking strong.
“North Greene’s program has come a long way and I expect Cloudland to be a lot better as well. You can’t overlook anyone in our conference any more. Hancock upset Cloudland and made the playoffs, so they will be tough also.”
The schedule remains the same from last season, only reversing home and away. The Rangers will travel to Boyd-Buchanan this season.
“I feel that our team will respond to the challenge this year,” McKinney said. “You only get better by playing better teams and Boyd was one of the top 1-A teams in East Tennessee last season, as was Hampton. We got our work cut out for us, but like I said, I think the team will respond to the challenge.”