Two of Elizabethton’s most prominent football standouts will remain in orange and black.
Quarterback McKenly Berry and lineman Matt Smith became the most recent Cyclone collegiate signees as they inked with Tusculum College Wednesday during a ceremony at the high school’s cafeteria.
“The credibility of these two guys and what they’ve done on the field, statisticically, and the school, the program and the community — these guys have played a lot of games and done a lot of great things for Elizabethton High School,” said Elizabethton coach Shawn Witten. “So we’re tremendously proud. We’re proud for the parents and proud of them. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.
“We’re looking forward to it. Tusculum’s a great place and has great facilities. Coach (Frankie) DeBusk is a great guy and, number one, hopefully they’ll go down there four years and come away with a degree.”
The Cyclones were two of the 19 in-state commitments among 71 players inked by the NCAA Division II program during Wednesday’s National Signing Day. Berry was the lone quarterback taken by the Pioneers, while Smith was one of 11 offensive linemen added to DeBusk’s squad.
Smith and Berry mark the ninth and tenth players to sign scholarship papers since Witten became head coach at Elizabethton.
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Berry likes Pioneers’ passing game
For Berry, a standout in football and baseball at Elizabethton, Tusculum could present an opportunity to experience the best of both sports, again, at the collegiate level.
While baseball could potentially be an option with the Pioneers, the gridiron comes first for the quarterback. A 4,000-yard passer for his career at Elizabethton, Berry steps into a system where throwing the football is a priority.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Berry. “Their coach, that’s the first thing he told me when he came and talked to me. That does make me feel really good and I might have the opportunity to play baseball as well.”
The 6-foot single-caller was an All-Conference selection as a junior and senior for the Cyclones, earning Three Rivers Conference Player of the Year honors as a junior when he helped guide the Cyclones into the TSSAA Class 3-A semifinals.
Berry passed for 2,200 yards as a junior with 15 touchdowns and tallied 1,687 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior with three rushing scores. He earned local Player of the Week honors multiple times during his career and was invited to try out for the USA Football international team representing the country for ages 19-under.
“When you talk about Cyclone quarterbacks, there’s a deep list and McKenly put himself in there,” said Witten. “He had 26 consecutive starts, over 4,000 yards passing and over 40 touchdowns. You just keep adding on. I don’t know if there’s been a guy that’s been able to throw the ball like he has in that quarterback list.
“Everybody looks for those different intangibles that separate one quarterback from another, he definitely did that the last two years. We’re excited and to be able to go to college and play quarterback, it’s a special privilege.
“He’s definitely going to get in there and learn as much as he can. Tusculum has a system where they throw the ball 60-70 times a game. We’re excited to see that. Hopefully we’ll be putting a lot of miles on it going down to Greeneville.”
Berry credited Witten and assistant Jordy Harrison for helping him improve his game on and off the field.
“I thank Coach Witten,” said Berry. “He pushed me a lot, and Coach Harrison in the weight room. Coach Witten was with me about every weekend. We were doing something together, whether it was getting something to eat or talking about football. It was always something.
“I’d get out of baseball and go lift, or I’d get out of football and go run. It was something all of the time and I really appreciate them not taking it easy on me because it’s going to help.”
Aside from the program’s offensive scheme and success, Berry was impressed by Tusculum’s state-of-the-art facilities and the fact that the school is within an hour’s distance of his hometown.
“They’ve got a lot of nice facilities,” Berry said. “Their football field is awesome and they’ve got an indoor practice facility which is great. Their campus is really nice and it isn’t too far away, but it’s far enough to get away.
As far as Elizabethton goes, it will always be home. Berry said he will miss his teammates and the people in his town the most as he takes the next step.
“It’s not going to be the same anywhere else,” Berry added. “It’s home.”
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Smith a fan of Tusculum as whole
The centerpiece of Elizabethton’s offensive and defensive lines the previous two seasons, Smith was charged when talking about the recruiting process.
“I’m excited,” Smith said. “It’s intense and gets you pumping.”
Courted by an array of Division I (FCS) and Division II programs, Smith was looking for the perfect fit. The Tusculum team, the football staff and the campus itself helped the lineman feel at ease with his college choice.
“I like the team real good,” said Smith. “I like the people over there. You won’t be happy unless you like the people where you’re at. I like how it’s small, but it ain’t too small and it ain’t too big. I like the school schedule and everything.”
Smith was thrown into the fire as a freshman with the Cyclones and has started in each of his four years with the orange and black.
“It’s helped me a lot,” said Smith. “I started as a freshman and being around older guys, you’ve got to get adjusted really quick.”
The 6-foot-4, 303-pounder earned the 2011 Three Rivers Conference Defensive Player of the Year award after delivering 80 tackles with a team-high five sacks amidst a lot of double-coverage. Smith, whose stock rose following a 109-tackle effort as a junior, was also named All-Conference each of the previous three seasons, awarded Most Outstanding Lineman by his team and honored by the Elizabethton Star in its postseason football team.
“I don’t know how many people in Cyclone football history — we’ve got a deep, traditional program and he’s started four years,” said Witten. “You’re talking about how many consecutive starts he’s had and the impact he’s had, especially on the defensive side of the ball. He was the defensive player of the year this year, had 109 tackles a year ago. He’s just big and his tenacity — he did a lot for us.
“There’s just some things you can’t teach with size and strength and some of the things he’s been able to do. Coach (Jordy) Harrison and Coach (Jeff) Pierce have done a great job coaching him and developing him and Matt’s done a great job in the offseason. He’s been a leader for us. He’s never complained and worked. We’re excited about what he’s accomplished.”
Harrison, one of Smith’s line coaches, echoed Witten.
“This is a great opportunity for him to take his skill set to the next level and showcase what he’s learned here at Elizabethton under our staff,” Harrison said. “Anytime you go play at the next level it’s a dream come true. It doesn’t matter if it’s Emory & Henry or Tennessee — wherever it may be.
“It’s a great opportunity and he’s got a good chance to get his education and hopefully he does well.”
Smith spoke highly of his time at Elizabethton, but certainly looks forward to the next chapter.
“It’s been great,” Smith added. “It went by real fast, but it’s been fun.”