Friday, August 19, 2022

ROCKET FOOTBALL: Preseason Preview

Throughout July and August there has been one constant in Rocket football’s preseason camp – last year’s First District Class A Runner-up Trophy. The piece of hardware is a source of unrest for the Rockets. 

Finishing second in the division for the first time in five years left a bitter taste in second-year coach Gaige Courtney’s mouth and the whole thing is starting to stick in everyone’s craw.

“I take it personally,” said the Rocket head coach. “We win four straight then the first year I take over that happens. I don’t want to be the one that lets the standard take a step back.”

So the trophy – a constant reminder of that taste of humility Crittenden County swallowed last fall – has been an omnipresent image of the Rockets’ disdain for anything short of a championship season.

“We take that second-place trophy to the practice field with us, the weight room, it will go with us to games,” Courtney said. “It reminds of what it felt like to lose.”

If the Rockets want to avoid losing this season, they will need some special weapons. The schedule is as tough as it’s been in years. Beyond the Class A First District, which includes a defending state runner-up Russellville squad weakened by graduation and an improved Fulton County crew, Crittenden will run the gauntlet with the likes of Murray, Madisonville, Bethlehem, Louisville DeSales, Union County and first-year Tennessee team Liberty Creek.

While a cast of talented skilled-position players return, the Rockets are retooling things up front. Returning linemen Deacon Holliman and Zach Counts will anchor the offensive line and both carry a big stick. Counts broke his leg last year and missed most of the season. Coach Courtney describes him as hungry to get back into action and Holliman is characterized as the team’s most physical player. Both tackles are imposing figures and will need to stay healthy if Crittenden hopes to win the trenches.

Hurst Miniard will play at center with Travis Blazina and Grayson James on each flank at guards. Lane West will see a great deal of playing time, too, but depth is thin up front.

Junior Micah Newcom is the quarterback with senior Seth Guess the backup. Crittenden lost record-setting quarterback Luke Crider who has moved on to play collegiately. Crider had been the starter for nearly three seasons. The skipper says Newcom is quite capable of handling the job.

“Micah has been groomed for this role for a long time, just been waiting his turn. I feel like he’s ready and I expect him to be really good,” Courtney said.

Take your pick as to who else might be handling the football. The options seem endless. CCHS has more depth at running back and receiver than perhaps it has in history. There’s a full range of talent levels and special skills among the stable of athletes. Certainly atop the pack are seniors Preston Morgeson and Kaleb Nesbitt. Their ability to hit the home run on any player will create big problems for opposing defenses. Look for them to show up at various places on the field, primarily as receivers. 

At running back will be Gattin Travis, Levi Piper and senior Sammy Impastato. Each has a skill set that

will allow the coach to mix in power or elusiveness. Senior Briley Berry will also get some time on offense, although his speciality is middle linebacker.

Senior Case Gobin will play the traditional tight end type role in a multiple offense that will feature mostly spread formations. Freshman Caden Howard, the team’s fastest player Rowen Perkins, Tyler Belt, Kekoa Kuamoo, Casey Cates and Gabe Keller are among the cast of other talented characters who will get their hands on the ball any given Friday.

“We’re still trying to figure out what we’re good at offensively,” Courtney said. “We have so much depth at receiver and all of those guys want the ball. It’s going to be hard at times to figure out where the ball should go. We’ve moved (Nesbitt) outside and he has the ability to take the top off of a defense. He gives us that home run element and they will have to respect him.”

Defensively, the Rocket secondary hasn’t been tested too much in preseason, but there’s some good skill back there. Linebackers look solid and the three inside guys up front have a high ceiling. Depth is another issue there, however. 

Berry and Gobin will set the tone. Berry leads the linebacking corps and Gobin is the top returning tackler at end. Gobin is long and strong and Berry has gotten bigger since his breakout junior season a year ago.

Junior Bennett McDaniel will miss the first game of the season with a back injury, but will be a key component at strong side linebacker if he can get healthy. The third backer is Travis, giving the Rockets a sold three-man starting unit. The starting hybrids defensive back/linebackers are Nesbitt and Guess with Perkins and Morgeson at the corners and Tyler Belt at free safety. There is some depth in that part of the defense with Piper, Howard, Cates, Keller, Austin Whitt and Evan Belt, who is back on the gridiron for the first time in years. 

Coach Courtney, who played linebacker during his days as a Rocket and four years in college, says the team must do a better job of forcing turnovers this season. 

“That’s got to be an emphasis,” he said. “Honestly, on defense we’re at a better place right now than we were at this point last season. I feel good about every level.”

Depth is a concern at linebacker, Courtney said, with McDaniel a question mark as the season begins.  “We have to stay healthy,” he added.

The Rockets have a chance to retake that coveted district championship again this season, but they will have to avoid injuries and improve special teams play. The kicking game is a particular concern as the season gets underway this week.