Early outlook promising for JC Longhorns

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- The playoffs are something the Johnson County Longhorns will be shooting for this fall.
   With another successful spring practice under their belts, the coach Mike Atwood-led 'Horns improved their skills and got a good idea what to expect of themselves this coming season.
   Last year the 'Horns finished 4-6 playing in a tough Mountain Lakes Conference, ending up in a three-way tie for fourth place.
   The No. 4 playoff spot went to Sullivan South and the finish is something that is motivating the maroon through the summer into the fall.
   "I'll be disappointed if we don't make them or don't have a chance to make them this year," said Atwood, whose team last made a playoff appearance in 2001. "Tennessee High, Elizabethton and (Sullivan) Central will all be pretty good. We hope to make a run."
   The Longhorns had good numbers for spring football, with 35 sophomores, juniors and seniors, along with 20 eighth-graders who were not allowed to practice with the varsity.
   The senior class has shown strong leadership, while the junior class displayed a lot of promise in the skill positions last fall as sophomores.
   "This is the best senior class we have had in a long time," said Atwood. "All but one or two are linemen. They have been leaders in the weight room and in practice."
   "Most of our skilled people were sophomores a year ago and a year of offense will help them," he said. "Most of them came back in pretty good shape. They have lifted weights and worked hard."
   One of the biggest moves the team has made is working last year's starting quarterback, Jeff Brinker, around the field.
   Brinker will be playing some tailback, along with quarterbacking the offense, to open him up to play an outside linebacker role for the team's defense.
   "We're moving Brinker so he can play defense," Atwood said. "He'll play some linebacker on the outside and we hope that will help.
   Jesse Jenkins will come in and play quarterback as part of the two signal caller set.
   Atwood notes running back T.R. Smith and three linemen as improved players during the successful spring.
   "Running back T.R. Smith probably had the best spring," the coach said. "He's gotten bigger and faster and looked better. Tommy Craig, Mitchell Harper and John Stout also looked good on the left side of the line."
   Defense was one of the big keys for the Longhorn squad last year.
   The team lost two solid defensive players in Daniel Cranford and Adam Johnson. Cranford was the Northeast Tennessee 4A-5A Defensive Player of the Year, while Johnson recorded 87 stops from the line.
   Atwood expects the defensive front to remain steady with eight returning started.
   "Our defense should be strong," he said. "We have eight of the starters back from last year and we're not going to change things a lot."
   As far as improvements, Atwood expects Nathan Paisley and Bobby Mount to come along as go-to players for the team.
   "We look for Nathan Paisley to really improve on offense," Atwood said. "He started last year and did well. Right now we have him at fullback and we expect big things from him."
   "Bobby Mount came out late last year and started the last few games at guard," he said. "We're playing him at linebacker and tight end and hope to get some improved play out of him."
   One thing that may hurt the 'Horns' cause this season is six road games, including four really must-win conference encounters against Sullivan Central, Daniel Boone, Sullivan East and Sullivan South.
   The team will host Unicoi County, Elizabethton and Tennessee High in Mountain City this year, a place where an upset is likely.
   "We play good in Mountain City," the coach said. "(Those games) will be to our advantage."
   Overall, there's a positive feel coming from Mountain City, and the Longhorns are looking forward to the upcoming year.
   "We had a good spring," said Atwood. "We've had good spring practices before, but haven't shown it in the season. We don't have any superstars, but a lot of good football players."