Smell of pigskin in the air

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
It's been awhile, but I can finally smell the aroma of the pigskin.
Although I cherish the other sports I cover in this county, from high school small sports to the Elizabethton Twins, nothing compares to the rush of football season.
I might represent a select group, but this week ushers in something special to many people across the country.
Throughout the area, passing leagues begin on select high school fields and the first day of official practice is July 28, just one week from today.
And speaking of July 28, that means only 18 days until the Mountain Lakes Conference jamboree at Sullivan South or 25 days until the county's top rivalry, Hampton and Cloudland, butt heads on Orr Field in Roan Mountain.
There will be many notable changes on some schedules this year. Happy Valley and Hampton pick up Gatlinburg-Pittman and Cumberland Gap (consolidation of Powell Valley and Forge Ridge) in the newly revamped Watauga Conference.
Things will stay the same for Elizabethton and Johnson County in the Mountain Lakes Conference, while Unaka and Cloudland pick up teams from Virginia on their non-conference schedules.
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Speaking of high school football, I've noticed several sportswriters in the area have already begun predicting the outcome of the area's conferences.
Not so fast my friends, it's going to be a tough road in some leagues and the possibility of a surprise conference contender from 5-A through 1-A is not out of the question -- ah, there I go being pessimistic. I'll go ahead and pick the early front-runners in the area leagues.
5-A: Dobyns-Bennett? Nope. Sevier County? Nah. Jefferson County? Yes!
Why Jefferson County when Dobyns-Bennett made the state semifinals? I'll tell you why. The Patriots return a solid lineup and sport, in my opinion, the best young coach in the state in Scott Meadows.
Last year, in Meadows' first campaign, he led Jeff County to the state quarterfinals, where they got beat by Dobyns-Bennett. The D-B Indians will return a tough team, including All-American wide receiver Lamon Williams, but I think Jefferson County will have their number this year.
4-A: I think the Mountain Lakes Conference will be the surprise league of the year, making this sportswriter undecided.
Tennessee High enters as an obvious favorite to win, but there are three schools that could pull make a climb in the standings. They may not win the league, but Sullivan South, Daniel Boone and Sullivan East will be the noisemakers in the league this year.
Elizabethton will be tough, but there are a few questions at this point after losing Walter Brown and Vince Redd. I expect the Cyclones to be in the thick of a playoff hunt.
3-A: With last year's league winner, Gatlinburg-Pittman, out of the hunt, Seymour will be the favorite of this group again.
I expect Sullivan North and Pigeon Forge to battle for the upper positions, but they will have to topple the steady favorite.
2-A: The Watauga Conference has gotten more respect this year with the addition of Gatlinburg-Pittman, which immediately enters as the favorite despite the heavy loss of seniors, including all-state tailback Ben Hess.
Hampton (with returning quarterback Mitchell Morton), will be the next best team in this league, which will see tough competition from Happy Valley (with Tim Whaley and its starting linemen) and West Greene.
Be on the look out for Cumberland Gap, a new school consisting of Powell Valley (1-A second-rounder) and Forge Ridge. The Gap has one of the better quarterbacks in the area with Corey Russell and should vie for a playoff spot in its first season.
Never count out South Greene, and Chuckey-Doak should be improved.
1-A: Although Unaka, North Greene, Jellico and Cosby will be tough, the Watauga Valley Conference still belongs to Cloudland in 2003.
The 'Landers return three all-staters in Mark Byrd, Dane Christman and Dakota Benfield, with a starting eleven that may be one of the best in school history.
Ranger fans, be on the lookout as Unaka should grab a playoff spot this season, possibly finishing as strong as third in the conference.
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On to the NFL, this Thursday Elizabethton's Jason Witten will get his first permanent taste of action at the next level as the Dallas Cowboys training camp begins in San Antonio.
Dallas insiders see an immediate playing and future starting role for Witten in the Cowboy uniform. He has impressed several media members, including cnnsi.com's B. Duane Cross, who lists Jason as a 'fantasy sleeper' on this year's team.
If you are into the fantasy football leagues like I am, many experts are advising selecting Jason based on what he brings to the Cowboys long-term wise this season.
Jason has yet to sign a contract with the team and is expected to do so within the next two weeks. He faces stiff competition from Dan Campbell, Tony McGee and James Whalen for a starting role, but is expected to contribute to the team as soon as possible and may see time as a starter by the year's end.
Witten waited his turn at Tennessee and excelled. Given his work ethic, we will be seeing and hearing his name many times this season.
The Cowboys scrimmage Houston on Aug. 2 at the Alamodome, and open preseason play on the road against the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 9.
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The Tennessee Titans also begin training camp on July 24, culminating with a scrimmage against the Miami Dolphins on Aug. 2 at 2:30 p.m. CST.
The defending AFC South champs will host Cleveland for their first preseason game on Aug. 9.
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In Knoxville, the Tennessee Volunteers are gearing up for what The Sporting News calls the second-toughest schedule in the nation.
The Vols team will be tested on the road against Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Miami among others, with games at home including Sillicon Valley Classic winner Fresno State, MAC champion Marshall and Georgia.
The freshmen and varsity report Aug. 3 to Knoxville, beginning one-a-day practices on 5th, with two-a-days starting Aug. 11.
The ETSU Bucanneers begin work on their final season in August before the season opener at Eastern Michigan on August 28.