County standouts start drills

star staff

  TUSCULUM -- It was a different atmosphere for former Carter County standouts Mark Byrd and Tim Whaley.
  The former Cloudland and Happy Valley stars, respectively, got their first taste of the college football atmosphere Wednesday when the Tusculum College Pioneers held its annual media day and officially got practice underway with its 'Midnight Madness' drills.
  The defending South Atlantic Conference Co-Champions previewed an upcoming season where many Division II experts believe the Pioneers could make a run for the NCAA crown if they run the table with their tough schedule.
  There is a possibility that Byrd and Whaley may red-shirt to adapt themselves to the Tusculum system given the team has over 130 players that were on campus as of last night.
  Roan Mountain's Byrd will begin work at the slot receiver position in the black and orange, whereas Whaley is expected to begin as a linebacker.
  "Everybody wants to start, but that's not going to happen (this year)," said Byrd. "My main goal this year is to get faster and stronger, and learn the system. I'll play wherever they want to place me."
  Byrd, the former TSSAA Mr. Football winner who has ran anywhere from a 4.4 to a 4.5 during his career at Cloudland has bulked from his high school weight of 170 to 195.
  The former Warrior, Whaley, has also bulked from 194 to 214 before the start of fall drills.
  "I've been lifting all summer," Whaley said early Wednesday. "To be honest, I haven't been running that much at all. I hope I can stay with the pack (tonight)."
  Both players noticed the intensity shown by the team and its coaches.
  "It's going to be a long two weeks," Tim added. "Every day is planned out as a one a day or two a day. (Coach DeBusk is) just trying to pick out the strong ones and the weak ones. We've got a lot of running to do. That will pick us apart."
  The drills will be a proving ground for Whaley and Byrd, who both put up solid numbers in their prep careers.
  "The intensity level is high here and so are the expectations," Byrd said. "Football takes a lot out of your body. (The college system) is going to take some getting used to."
  The Frankie DeBusk led Pioneers are ranked second in their conference going into the 2004 season.
  The team was ranked 10th in the nation after their best outing in the school's history with a 9-2 record, just missing a playoff berth.
  Current Pittsburgh Steeler Ricardo Coclough will be the biggest spot to fill on the team. But the squad hopes to find replacements for their holes before their opening contest at Concord College on August 28th.
  According to preseason All-Conference defensive lineman Lee Hughes, Jr., the 16 110-yard dashes at the 12:01 a.m. practice early Thursday separates players early.
  "If you don't get them, there's a possibility you might not play," Hughes said. "That tells the coaches whether you are in shape or not and if you worked out during the summer to get the job done."
  The returning Pioneer players appeared motivated due to the playoff snub last season.
  The team's starting quarterback Tony Colston will lead this season's offensive efforts with a vengeance.
  "It's very frustrating," said the Clinton native, Colston. "Our coaches have worked very hard and there's been no let down out here. Not making the playoffs is one of the most frustrating things, going 9-2, and it fuels our fire."
  The addition of a regionally televised game against one of the toughest D2 teams in the nation could help the case of a Tusculum run this year.
  Fifth-ranked North Alabama, the defending Gulf South Conference champs who finished 2003 with a 13-1 record after losing in the semi-finals, will visit Pioneer Field this season.
  The nation's top Division II player in Harlon Hill trophy winner Will Hall was on last year's Lion team, which returns several of last year's standout players including DeMarkus Blount.
  The potentially huge non-conference battle will be televised on CSS, and has been moved to a 7:30 p.m. start.
  "We have a full schedule of D2 teams and we hope bringing North Alabama in here (will help us out)," Colston added. "I give respect to them. They are a great team, but I honestly feel that Coach DeBusk has surrounded us with great talent from the coaching staff and on the field."
  "It's real exciting," he said. "We want to prove to the nation and the conference that we're not just an up and coming team anymore. We are here and ready to win. We've worked harder in the offseason and it fueled our fire."
  (A more in-depth Tusculum preview will appear in the STAR's football edition on August 20th.)