SAND ROCK – Sand Rock football coach Alan Heath likens the progress of the Wildcat football program to a construction project. His first year was about providing the blueprints for the foundation of where he wanted to take the program. The Wildcats struggled to a 3-7 season. Last year, the gravel was put down and the cement poured in a remarkable 7-4 turnaround.
“Now we’ll see this year what we can build from that,” Heath said. “Every year we’ve gotten stronger because the kids are in the weight room working hard. That’s the basis of everything we do. The only way you’re going to win at Sand Rock is to out-work people, and we’ve continued to work toward that and get better. I’m excited about seeing where we’re at Thursday night.”
Thursday night of course being the season opener at county rival Spring Garden, a game that went down to the wire last year in which Sand Rock fell just short, 29-28.
A lot has changed for the Wildcats since that game. They lost senior quarterback Ace Ashley to an ACL injury back in their spring game. They also lost one of their tailbacks in Jacob Cornejo after he transferred to Cherokee County High School.
But despite setbacks like those, Heath is happy with where the Wildcats are at this point.
“This group of kids has busted their tails,” he said. “They’ve put up with me. The way that we do things here is as old school as you can do it anymore. We do things the only way I know how to do it, and I’ve been doing this 20 years. I’m really excited about how hard they’ve worked. We’ve got some kids who performed well for us last year returning, and we’ve got some new faces in some new places.”
One of those new faces is sophomore quarterback Carson Chesnut. Heath said Chesnut has “worked really hard to learn the offense.”
“His arm strength is phenomenal,” Heath said. “He’s building that confidence, getting a whole lot better. He’s getting to where he doesn’t have to think about it anymore. He can just look at the play on the wristband and know what it is. I’m really, really impressed with his progression.”
So, too, is one of Chesnut’s senior receivers Brian Giles.
“Carson has worked his tail off this whole summer and is doing really good,” Giles said. “He’s stepped up and taken on that role. I think people are going to be surprised this year and be proud of him. He’s stepped up in Ace’s position and is ready for it.”
Joining Giles as targets for Chesnut to throw is 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior tight end Logan Crider, along with receivers Everett DeBoard and Jace Turner. Jimmy Cochran was also expected to be in that corps, but is recovering from a lacerated kidney.
“To me the game has slowed down a lot. Everything’s in slow motion now,” Crider said. “I get to see the field and see the open spots now.”
DeBoard, whom Heath says the Wildcats’ utility guy on offense, will also line up in the backfield, along with juniors Lucas McDaniel and Trace Haygood. Haygood returns to the backfield after rushing for over 600 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Haygood said he’s ready for the challenge of being a featured back again this season.
“We’ve had some ups and downs, guys getting hurt, Jacob now gone, this and that, but we’ve got Lucas stepping up in some different formations we’re putting in. The line is looking good, so if we block well and run downhill we’ll be fine.”
Speaking of the Wildcat line, only one starter is returning in senior four-year starter Bradley Jackson, but Heath noted all of the guys along the front got some work last season.
Trace Haygood’s brother, Nathan Haygood, will be starting at one of the guard positions as well as Morgan Tucker. Hugh Moore will be playing at tackle and nose guard. Cody McLane will be the other Wildcat tackle.
Heath said those guys will double along the defensive front.
“We’re looking pretty solid on the defensive end,” Jackson said. “We’re good up front. We’ve got some size and some speed up front along the line.”
“We’ve just got to do our jobs, be physical and fast,” Nathan Haygood added.
At linebacker, Trace Haygood and Cain Robinson will patrol the inside. Giles, Crider and Gatlin Cox are on the outside. Cox will also play some at strong safety. Turner, McDaniel and DeBoard could also see playing time at safety. Chesnut and DeBoard are at the corners.
As mentioned, the Wildcats open the season Thursday at Spring Garden, then face another county rival in Cedar Bluff on Aug. 26. They open Class 2A, Region 7 play at home against Pisgah on Sept. 2. Other teams within Region 7 include Fyffe, Collinsville, Ider, North Sand Mountain, Section and Whitesburg Christian.
“There’s not an easy game on our schedule this year, not one,” Heath said. “We start out with two rivalry games. It’s always fun to play those. They mean a lot to everybody in both communities, so it’s good to have those tests early. We’ve got to be really well-prepared.”