CENTRE – It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the Cherokee County Warriors are working out in their newly-refurbished weight room.
Senior quarterback Cade Hopper is at the rack closest to Coach Jacob Kelley’s office. The weight bar is set at 255 pounds and Hopper is on the bench, with Kelley directly behind his head to spot him.
Hopper proceeds to push the bar up five times, much to his coach’s and teammates’ delight.
“He’s gotten extremely bigger,” Kelley said. “He’s actually hit a little growth spurt, and he’s still growing. When he first had to fill in for Slade (Alexander), I was two inches taller than him. Now he’s an inch taller than me. He was like a 180-pound sophomore, barely six foot. Now he’s pushing 6-3 and he’s around 210.”
Senior center Connor Wilson has snapped for Hopper since middle school, and he can tell a difference in his quarterback.
“It’s been fun to have him around and watch him develop,” Wilson. “I feel like he’s going to have a good season this year. Having a good leader like him helps out a lot.”
Many of the other Warriors have development stories similar to Hopper’s. It’s one reason why they’re expecting big things during the 2022 season.
“That (weightlifting) plays a big role on Friday nights,” Hopper said. “Our motto is ‘Be stronger than everybody’, and that plays a big role.”
It isn’t just the weights that Hopper and his teammates have been hitting hard during the off-season. Kelley said Hopper has improved his running ability. Hopper said he’s also worked on his arm strength. He’s gone to numerous camps throughout the summer “just to get my arm where it needs to be.”
“I’ve been throwing to my receivers as much as I can during the off-season. We went to several 7-on-7s just to build on our connection,” Hopper said. “Malachi Horton has really come along. Jack Amos has done the same thing, been really good. Alex Johnson has gotten faster. So has Ben Frampton, we’re going to rely on him. Jaden Wilson is going to be a big target for us in the end zone. We’ve just got a lot of guys who can catch the ball.”
The Warriors also have a couple of guys who can run it too. Attempting to fill the shoes left by all-state performer Damien Ramsey are sophomore Tae Diamond and Sand Rock junior transfer Jacob Cornejo.
“They’re a little different style of running backs,” Kelley said. “They’re kind of similar to Damien in the sense that Damien was a power back, but he could also do other things. Jacob definitely can do other things. He’s a really good receiver, really comfortable catching the football. He’s really smooth on his routes. We’ll use him in different ways, different sets. He’s very, very powerful when he gets downhill, and so is Tae.
“Those guys had tremendous off-seasons. I’m looking for big things out of them just from the work they’ve put in and how they’ve looked at practice. Those guys are primed to have really good years.”
Wilson is the lone senior on the offensive line, but Kelley feels the line “might be the best bunch I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
“Cooper Martin has stepped up at left tackle. Aidan Watts is kind of a swingman anywhere. He can play guard. He can play tackle. At left guard, Zach Gaylor is moving from right tackle to left guard. Body-wise, he’s probably a more natural guard than he is a tackle. Connor is a returning starter at center, and Antonio Hernandez had a great off-season in the weight room. He got tremendously stronger. He’s taken that right guard spot over and done a great job. You’ve got Landon Ransum who was starting at right guard last year and he bumped over to tackle. He’s also going to play some D-line. He’s really quick off the ball and he does great technically from a defensive line standpoint. Cooper Martin is the same.
“Those guys have looked tremendously good. Their thing is working together, working with the guys beside them and just being physical, getting movement, creating holes. When they do that, good things happen.”
“We’ve got a bunch of guys stepping up in big places that we need. I think that’s going to help us out a lot,” Wilson said. “All of the guys trained a lot during the summer. They’ve made themselves better, so hopefully it’s going to start showing when we play somebody on the other side of the field.”
On the defensive side, brothers Tae and Demarious “Meat” Diamond are two focal points along the defensive front.
“You’d think Demarrious, just because he’s a defensive lineman, is not as fast as Tae, but he’s actually faster than Tae,” Kelley said. “He’s very quick off the ball. In the last month he’s been so good on film. It’s great to see. Caleb Harbour is the same way. Dalton Chesnut is just a big oak tree. He’s very hard to move. He’s a three-year starter for us. You spill in Landon (Ransum) and Cooper (Martin) and a couple of other guys in there when needed.
“Those guys have done a tremendous job. I feel like our strength is our lines of scrimmage right now. If they play to their capability and their strengths, I feel like they give us great opportunities.”
At linebacker, the Warriors feature Alex Loyd, Tristan Brown and Cornejo. Johnson, Horton, Amos and Ben Frampton double at the cornerback spots. Haden Wheeler is a hybrid safety/linebacker. Jeb Crane is also at safety.
Will Frampton will be doing the placekicking and kickoffs. Rhylin Davis and Cornejo are handling punts for the Warriors.
“I’m excited about this group,” Kelley said. “We have less question marks going into this season as we did last season.”
The Warriors move into a new region and back in the North half of the state for the next two seasons: Class 4A, Region 6. The region consists of state runner-up Oneonta, Ashville, Etowah, Fultondale, Good Hope and Hanceville.
“We can’t sit here and sigh and say ‘Thank God we’re in the North.’ We’re still in a very tough region now,” Kelley said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to focus on us and develop us into the best team we can be, then we’ll see what we need to do to beat those guys.”
Horton said it feels good to be playing in a new region.
“It’s new competition,” he said. “It’s always fun to play a team you don’t know much about and see what they’re about. I find it interesting and pretty exciting for us.
“I feel like if we come out and execute our plays, be smart and do our jobs, I feel like we’ve got a pretty good chance this year.”
Demarious Diamond is just waiting for the season to begin.
“I’m tired of practicing against my teammates,” he said. “I want to hit on somebody else.”