Having to replace conference offensive and defensive players of the year might be a task large enough to put a frown on the face of any head football coach, let alone one taking over his first program.
But since the day he was hired to replace Bruce Ollis, Polk County head coach Jamie Thompson has consistently managed a sly grin when asked about his team’s prospects for the 2014 season. There’s no Reece Schlabach, there’s no Chase McMurray and there’s still Shelby and Asheville at the head of the schedule and Owen and Hendersonville awaiting at the end.
But a wealth of talent at the skill positions and some key returnees elsewhere has Thompson already thinking about the possibility of making history in his first campaign.
We have the potential to go where we haven’t gone before, to go to the third round (of the state 2A playoffs),” Thompson said.
To do so, Polk County will need its rebuilt offensive line to solidify, its new starting quarterback to be as good as expected, its defense to adapt to a new coordinator and its program to settle in under a new head coach for the first time since 2002, when Ollis arrived for the start of a 12-season stay that brought 110 wins and five Western Highlands Conference championships.
As Thompson said, though, the potential is certainly there.
2014 Polk County football schedule | 2014 Polk County football roster
Polk County has become known for dual-threat quarterbacks, players who can operate the Wolverines’ veer attack as both a running and passing threat. Junior Jamal Wheeler will become the latest starter to fit that mold.
Wheeler moved into the offensive starting lineup late last season as a tailback and starred in Polk County’s wins over Owen and Hendersonville. He then stepped in for an injured Schlabach in the Wolverines’ 27-19 playoff loss at Reidsville, nearly rallying Polk County to a potential game-tying touchdown.
That performance has given a boost of confidence to both Wheeler and Thompson throughout the offseason, enough so that fans can this year’s Polk County offense to look remarkably similar to those of years past.
“We’re going to be very similar to what we’ve been in the past,” Thompson said. “We’ll still be an option football team. We’ll tweak things here and there formation-wise. We’ve got a couple of new wrinkles we’re installing trying to take advantage of the speed we have and the skill positions we have. We’ll still have our power football, we’ll still get in the I. But you can look for us to spread the football a bit more this year.
“Jamal does a good job reading the veer. He likes to read it back from the shotgun and we’ll be in pistol more this year, too. He does a better job reading it from back there. With Jordan Smith, those two in the backfield, teams have to prepare for the fullback and the quarterback.”
Senior Tanner Garrett will back up Wheeler at quarterback and also see time at wide receiver.
Smith is expected to be one of the better fullbacks in Western North Carolina, a determined runner that provides the inside threat so vital to the option attack. At tailback, expect Tyler Jackson, back from an injury that sidelined him all of last season, and sophomore Storm Wheeler to see the bulk of the carries.
A wide receiver corps of Jason Chupp, Dequan Gary, Joshua Kornmayer and Bryce Martin, with Jerry Cox and Wes Mullis at tight end, help Thompson feel the Wolverines are as solid as ever at the skill positions.
“Jason Chupp, he’s had a great summer this year,” Thompson said. “He’s gotten really faster. He’s changed his body. He’s put on 15 pounds of muscle since last year, which is a lot. He’s come into his own this summer and he gives us that threat on the edge. Jerry’s probably one of the smartest kids, football smart, on our team. I can call out a formation and he can go up and draw it up, no matter what I call out. I expect Jerry to be a coach one day.”
The biggest offensive question mark for Polk County this season comes in the offensive line, where only one starter returns. That starter is senior D.J. Twitter, a preseason 2A all-state selection by NCPreps.com who will man the left tackle spot.
Senior A.J. Searcy is expected to start at right tackle, with juniors Fred Salerno and Camren Moore also in the mix for playing time. Seniors Will Justice and Jesse Bradley will see extensive time at guard, with senior Daniel Walker and freshman Devin Panchynshn also involved in the race for starting spots, while senior Damian Jackson and junior Alex Leake compete for the starting spot at center.
“Our question on offense will be up front. We replaced four starters on our offensive line,” Thompson said. “Those other four guys will be brand new. Those guys are seniors, so they do have some maturity, but they haven’t been in crunch time yet. How those four guys step up will determine a lot of our season. They’ve been doing a great job so far in the preseason and practice. I think we’re going to be good there.”
Thompson, the defensive coordinator last season, has taken over the Polk offense and will call plays. Overseeing the defense as its coordinator this season is Mark Duncan, who served as Crest’s defensive coordinator last season when the Chargers reached the 3AA state championship game.
“Defensively, me might be better than we were last year,” Thompson said. “I can think of two positions where we lost (key players), Chase McMurray and Debois Miller. Chase McMurray, it’s going to be hard to replace him. He was a great anchor tackle. That position is up for grabs.
“Last year, when we played Reidsville, Debois was having a hamstring problem and he didn’t practice this week. So we went ahead and moved Jordan to inside linebacker, and Jordan looked like a natural during practice. I’d already decided that Jordan was going to play inside linebacker this year. The thing about Jordan is that you show him something, and he’s got it. He has a very high IQ when it comes to football. He was already in midseason form based on that one week when we got going this summer.
“Damian Jackson and D.J. Twitty are back in the defensive line, and Khiree Green is back at Sam linebacker. Khiree has really got a nose for the ball. He’s very intelligent when it comes to making reads and getting to where he needs to be.”
Green and Smith will receive support from sophomore Chandler Patrick and Justice. Chupp is expected to start at drop end, backed by Kornmayer, with Tyler Jackson and Cox manning the rush end position. Twitty, Jackson and sophomore Drew Wahnon will man the interior of the line, with Salerno, Leake and Moore also receiving playing time there.
In the secondary, freshman Dillion Overholt is expected to start at free safety, backed by Jamal Wheeler, with Martin and Gary, plus Dalvin Littlejohn and Garrett, seeing time at the two cornerback slots. Storm Wheeler and Shakur Wingo will man the strong safety slot.
“This summer we noticed that Dillion had better instincts than anyone we had in terms of breaking on the football,” Thompson said. “He’s young and he’s still learning, but his instincts are some of the best I’ve seen at that young of an age.”
One new face expected to make an impact on the team is junior David Derkach. The 6-3 Derkach, who moved to Polk County after playing last season at Maury High School in Roanoke, Va., will play some wide receiver and defensive back, but will be the team’s placekicker. Smith is expected to replace Schlabach as the team’s punter.
“Last year he wasn’t a position player,” Thompson said of Derkach. “The kid is 6-3, and we’ve got him working at wide receiver some. He’s learning the routes and he’s getting better. But he can kick the football. He’s probably one of the better kickers we’ve had in a long time. He can place the ball where he wants on kickoffs, he’s solid on field goals and PATs. He’s got great form and great technique. He’s going to be a great addition.
“I must be living right or something. When he came knocking on our door, I was happy to see him.”
Schedule / Conference
So exactly why do the Wolverines open the season with Shelby and Asheville, perhaps the toughest opening games for anyone in the area?
“When we set that schedule up, the state was in the pod system, and if you won your conference then you were going to be number one seed in your pod, and you would have a first and second-round home game,” Thompson said. “But after that schedule was set, the state decided to go back to the traditional seeding of 16 teams. So it hurt us last playoffs by playing that tough non-conference schedule. Now, long story short, we beat R-S Central and it doesn’t matter.
“It’s a blessing and a curse. If you beat Shelby, you’re going to want to do it in the playoffs. But that tough non-conference schedule had a lot to do with us winning nine games in a row and being conference champions and going undefeated for the first time in the conference. It is a tough road to hoe, Shelby and Asheville back-to-back.”
WHC coaches chose Owen as the preseason favorite in the conference, with Polk County and Hendersonville following. With preseason 2A state player of the year Jager Gardner and a wealth of experience returning on both sides of the ball, the Warhorses likely are the league’s team to beat. But Thompson isn’t ready to hand Owen the title of reigning champion just yet.
“I see the traditional dogfight between us, Owen and Hendersonville coming down to the last three weeks of the season,” Thompson said. “Last year we were picked fifth in the conference, so this is an improvement. “I don’t buy too much into the preseason rankings, but I see it being the traditional Polk County-Owen-Hendersonville battle at the end. I expect us to be competing for it, and our goal is to win it.
“We’ve won five conference championships in eight years and I expect it to be six in nine years. That’s our goal.”