2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Trojans hope last year’s roller coaster season is back on the incline

Gaylesville’s Keylon Higgins cuts the corner on a run as Eli Bryson and Bailey Glassco block each other at practice on Monday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

GAYLESVILLE – The Gaylesville Trojans were expecting big things from their 2020 football season, but like with so many other teams in 2020, COVID-19 changed a potentially special year.

The Trojans lost two games by forfeit because of COVID concerns, including a crucial Class 1A, Region 7 battle with longtime rival Cedar Bluff. With those losses, Gaylesville finished last season at 4-5 and just missed the state playoffs.

They did, however, finish the season on a high note with a 16-10 win at Donoho in a non-counting contest.

“One or two breaks here and there last year, it would have been a real special year, but I think last year was a step in the right direction,” Gaylesville coach Brian Knapp said. “We showed a lot of promise. We showed a lot of ability to face adversity. Between COVID and injuries, and a couple of times I had to make some disciplinary actions, we rode the roller coaster and were able to come out 5-5 (counting the Donoho game).”

“It hurts because we were so close (to making the playoffs),” junior offensive lineman/linebacker Bailey Glassco said. “We faced so much adversity last year and still came so close. If we can just keep ourselves healthy and get everybody straight, we’ll have a good year. I think we’ll make it.”

Like Glassco, the rest of the Trojans aren’t living in the past. They’re looking forward to the future.

Yes, they did lose four key seniors, including all-purpose and all-state sensation DJ Lee, but the Trojans have 30 players on their roster this season, up from 24 a year ago.

“It’s a slow improvement, but it’s just the way it is when you’re a little bitty school,” Knapp said. “When I first got here, we basically had 17 on the roster. We have well over 50 percent of the high school male population playing football now. That’s about as good as you can have, especially in today’s time. Our numbers are pretty evenly dispersed, except for our sophomore class. We’ve only got four in it. We’ve got to keep working on that class, but everybody else is in that 7-8 (bodies). Our freshman class has 11. I’ve been pleased with that.”

Knapp knows it will take a few bodies to replace the multi-talented Lee.

“DJ had a unique skill set. He did everything from intercept a pass to kick to throw the ball and run the ball,” Knapp said. “We won’t replace him with one person. Offensively, we’ll be more by committee. I’ve got to do my part as a play caller to spread the ball out a little bit more, and probably put it up a little bit more than I have in the past, but I think if we can do those things, it’ll balance out how great he was.”

One of those players Knapp is counting on is junior quarterback Tanner Eads. He threw for 150 yards in Gaylesville’s spring game against Victory Christian, but suffered a setback in that game by tearing his ACL.

Knapp likes how well Eads has progressed in his rehab and said he’s hopeful he will be ready in time for the Trojans’ season-opener at home against Whitesburg Christian on Aug. 20.

“He’s obviously grown and progressed in the right direction,” Knapp said. “It will be a different team offensively, but we’ll still be effective. It’ll just be a little bit different of an attack in terms of how we approach it.

“We’ve got some very capable kids. Keylon (Higgins) is going to play fullback. Hunter Penney is a senior who’s been with me for a long time. He’s going to be the wingback. Michael Reynolds, who can play every position on the field and do it well, he’ll be the halfback, and we’ll use Jacob Gordon in the backfield.”

“Everyone’s putting in the work, and everybody’s trying to get better,” Gordon, a senior, said. “With all the COVID and the setbacks we had last year, hopefully we can benefit this year. I believe that will give us enough strength to push through it all.”

Higgins, a junior, and Reynolds, a senior, along with junior Briley Mitchell, will anchor the defensive front in addition to their offensive roles.

“Coach Knapp always says we’re too small of a team to not be in shape, to not be strong. You have to be strong and have to be in shape to compete,” Mitchell said. “Most of us play both sides of the ball, so you have to be conditioned to play both sides of the ball. We’re working very hard on that.”

One of the concerns Knapp has is the Trojan secondary. He said they’re really young at those spots.

Another question Knapp has is who will step up to become a vocal leader for the Trojans.

“We’ve got quite a few kids who lead by example, but we need that one kid who can be somewhat vocal,” Knapp said. “It’s important to hear their voice too, not just me all the time. That’s what we try to stress with our kids all the time. We hope that light switch goes off for them.”

The Trojans need for that light switch to flip on early and stay on throughout the season.

After opening at home against Whitesburg Christian and a trip to Ragland on Aug. 27, Gaylesville begins region play at home against Appalachian (Sept. 3), then has road trips to Coosa Christian (Sept. 9) and Valley Head (Sept. 17).

Following a non-region home game against Class 3A Asbury on Sept. 24, the Trojans close out region play against Sumiton Christian (Sept. 30), at Cedar Bluff (Oct. 8) and at Woodville (Oct. 15).

After a bye following the Woodville game, the Trojans end the regular season at home against Alabama School for the Deaf on Oct. 29.

“We’re going to try and manage the game,” Knapp said. “If we have a chance in the fourth quarter, I like our chances because of the time we’ve put in that (weight) room. We’ll be in conditional shape, but injuries will have to play on our side.”

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