Bulldog coach wary of Unicoi

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   At the first of the season, the Unicoi County football team was getting swallowed up like a pocket full of loose change through the cracks of a living-room couch.
   The Blue Devils, though, after starting with two performances they are probably trying to forget, have made several positive strides -- and grabbed the attention of a respected head coach.
   "They're not bad at all," said Hampton head coach J.C. Campbell, whose 4-1 Bulldogs host the 1-3 Devils in non-conference action this Friday night. "They've improved the most of any team I've seen from the first of the year till now."
   Blown out by Happy Valley (47-21) in its season opener, Unicoi then became the team Sullivan East defeated to end a 27-game losing streak.
   However, the Devils battled back with a convincing win at Unaka (33-6) before taking Johnson County -- which lost to Hampton by just one point -- to overtime in a 6-0 setback.
   "Their spirits are up," Unicoi head coach Larry Howell said of his Devils on Wednesday afternoon. "We've had a good week of practice so far. Today it will be a little sloppy, which will be good practice for Friday night."
   While it looks as if the wet weather that invaded the area on Wednesday will lead to less-than-ideal conditions on Friday night, Campbell hopes that dark clouds don't bring gloomy results for his football team.
   The longtime coach sees this game as a tricky spot for Hampton, which is rolling along with a four-game winning streak.
   "Unicoi is two leagues above us, although they should be one above us," Campbell said. "Erwin's a good-sized little town, and it's hard for a small county school like us to compete with them. Hopefully, we can play well against them."
   Compared to their first game of the year, the Devils have really stepped to the fore on the defensive side of the football.
   "Defensively, we definitely played our best game this past Friday night," Howell said. "Maybe we can create some turnovers and give ourselves good field position this week. We lost our quarterback (Josh Hensley) on Friday night, so we'll have to do some things differently offensively."
   On offense, the Devils have a stud running back in Chris Brown, who rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns in the Unaka contest. Injured early at Johnson County, Brown showed his toughness by playing on.
   "I don't think you can hit him with a sledgehammer and hurt him," said Howell, who commended the effort of both Brown and lineman Jerod Bailey.
   Thomas Britt, who ran for 165 yards and a TD vs. the Rangers, and Brown each have over 300 yards on the ground this season.
   "They run a lot of counters and misdirection," Campbell said of Unicoi.
   Hampton's offense naturally starts with senior tailback Michael Peterson. He finished the first half of Hampton's regular season with 557 yards of rushing (5.8 avg. per carry), seven receptions for 71 yards and a half-dozen touchdowns.
   Quarterback Mitchell Morton, both a passing and rushing threat, and receiver Eric Swain (11 catches, 152 yards) are key components for the Bulldogs, who get productive work from fullback Jimmy Sarrett and all-purpose players Kevin Harrison and Corey McKinney.
   "They're probably more balanced this year," Howell said of Hampton. "It looks like they can throw the ball as well as run it. They've probably got one of the best tailbacks in the area in Peterson. Their quarterback can run, and he also throws it well. They've got some good receivers."
   However, Campbell said his team needs to take better advantage of scoring opportunities than it did in a 19-14 victory over South Greene last week.
   "When we get in position where we should score, I'd like to see us not flooze it away with a penalty, or a bad play or something of that nature," said Campbell. "We could have been up as much as 28-0 at halftime (it was 7-7 at the half), 21-0 easy."
   Defensively, Sarrett (12 tackles) was a consistent force against the Rebels, and Morton and Justin Waycaster grabbed huge interceptions late in the game. Hampton is giving up little yardage on the ground.
   "They look like they're solid up front and at their linebackers, and their defensive backs break on the ball well," Howell said. "This is probably the best team Hampton has had in quite some time."
   Currently plagued with injuries, the 'Dogs will scratch starting linebacker/guard Pat Murphey (ankle) from the lineup while McKinney (concussion) likely returns from a one-game absence.
   Hampton has next week off.
   "If we can get (a win), that would be real good," Campbell said. "Then we'd have a week off to heal and get some people back. This has been our worst year for injuries."
   Asked what the Devils must accomplish to anchor their hopes of a win, Howell answered, "We have to stop Peterson, and we have to get some breaks."
   Action kicks off at 7:30.