2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Depth a plus at Piedmont

Piedmont junior fullback Parker Thornton concentrates on making a catch at a 7-on-7 scrimmage against Randolph County last month. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

PIEDMONT – Piedmont football coach Steve Smith’s mullet is a thing of the past.

Or is it?

Smith made good on a 2018 state championship bet with his players last season by growing his hair out. But that was last year. Smith’s mullet is gone, although some observers have begun to notice his hair is getting a little thicker again with the 2021 season fast approaching.

“I thought about just growing it for the heck of it,” Smith joked. “I haven’t had time to go get a haircut. I had somebody tell me the other day ‘You must be growing a mullet again.’ Really, I just haven’t had time to get a haircut.”

If the players know of something going on with Smith’s hairstyle this season, they’re mum on the subject as well.

“I honestly don’t know,” Bulldog senior linebacker Landon Smart said at Calhoun County’s media day last month. “I don’t think we’ve come up with (anything) yet.”

“We’ll definitely come up with something,” senior wide receiver/defensive back Austin Estes said.

One thing’s for sure however. The Bulldogs’ depth is almost as long as Smith grew his hair last season. Piedmont has 63 players listed on its 2021 roster, including 16 seniors and 22 juniors.

“It’s a pretty good balance across the board in all the classes,” Smith said. “We’ve got the largest roster we’ve ever had with 63 players. We’re working players at a variety of positions and just seeing what kind of combinations we can put out there.”

One of those 22 juniors is starting quarterback and two-time Class 3A Back of the Year finalist Jack Hayes. Last season, Hayes threw for over 2,400 yards and 39 touchdowns. He also ran for 577 yards and eight scores on 134 carries in leading the Bulldogs to a 12-2 record.

“The expectations for him are through the ceiling,” Smith said. “He’s been a two-year starter. He’s quarterbacked 29 games to this point. We have high expectations for him.”

Joining Hayes in the backfield is fellow junior fullback Parker Thornton. The rest of the Bulldog backfield, Smith said, is by committee.

“Brayden Morgan (a senior) is probably the guy with the most experience in that setup,” Smith said. “Cody Holloway (a junior) could see some time at the running back position. (Sophomores) Luke Rhinehart and Dontavious Jordan both looked good (during the Bulldogs’ scrimmage Friday night).”

The Bulldog receivers include veterans Estes and Coleman Reid. Juniors Max Hanson, Gatlyn Gardner, Jake Rhinehart and Brodey Brothers are also expected to haul in some passes.

Perhaps the most depth the Bulldogs have is along the offensive line. The unit includes seniors Steven Raney, Jack Tolbert, Jaylon Sherrill, Chris Thompson and Aaron Woodard; juniors Conner Williams, Landon and Braden McDaniels, Caedon Ooten, ChrisJohn Gurley; and sophomores Tanner Curvin, Sam Tolbert and Jonah Pike.

“We’ve got about 15 offensive linemen we’ve been getting a lot of work with,” Smith said. “We feel like that has the potential to be one of our strong suits, the depth there on the line. It’s provided some great competition early on in camp.”

Senior Blake Fortenberry, junior Trent Young and sophomore Fisher Adams return to help anchor the Bulldog defensive front. Sophomore Chance Murphy also returns after being rotated in last season. Woodard and juniors Lucas Ledbetter and Rhett Alford will provide depth along the line.

Smart and junior Brody Epps both return at the inside linebacker spots. Smith notes it will be their third year as a starting pair. Senior Noah Reedy returns for a third year at outside linebacker. Junior Jake Austin and senior Ridge Fagan join Reedy on the outside.

Seniors Rusty Escamilla, Omarion Foster, Tanner McQueen, junior Cody Holloway, and sophomores McClane Mohon and Trevor Pike will patrol the Bulldog secondary.

Junior Sloan Smith returns as the Bulldog kicker. He’ll also handle the punting and kickoff duties as well.

“Our returning players, I feel great about them. I feel great about our up-and-coming players. I feel great about our depth,” Coach Smith said. “The thing about this particular season is you’ve got tons of factors out there that may be out of your hands – keeping people fresh, keeping people sharp, injuries, things of that nature. I think it’s going to be very important for us to stay focused on the big picture, which is getting kids ready to play each Friday night, not try to do too much, not try to look down the road at scenarios of what could happen, just play every game like it’s your last game, and taking that sense of urgency into it each week.”

Piedmont shouldn’t have any trouble with that sense of urgency throughout the season. The Bulldogs face longtime rivals almost every week. They open with Highway 9 rival Cherokee County on Aug. 27.

“We’ve got 10 weeks of rivalry games. We can get excited about everybody on our schedule,” Coach Smith said. “Our region has us and five other teams from Calhoun County (Saks, Weaver, Ohatchee, Pleasant Valley and Wellborn). The two region teams not from the county are Hokes Bluff and Glencoe, which are 75-80 year old rivalries for this program. Our non-region games are with Centre, Jacksonville and Alexandria.

“I don’t know if you could hand pick better, more entertaining, competitive games from teams who have gotten used to making deep runs in the playoffs. It’s a great thing for us and our kids. Every week you’ve got somebody to get up for. It’s a lot more fun when you’re playing people close to home rather an hour-and-a-half, two hours away that you don’t have a tradition or a history with.”

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