Freshman class offers renewed hope for Longhorn football

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MOUNTAIN CITY--Every few years, Johnson County High School gets a group of football players that everybody knows will be special.
   The 2002 freshman class looks to be the latest group that area opponents will be taking notice of not too far from now.
   Johnson County's freshman team is 3-2 heading into tonight's contest at Tennessee High. That's very respectable considering that Johnson County is the smallest school in Mountain Lakes Conference.
   "Our numbers are not as big as the other schools," Johnson County freshman coach Austin Atwood said. "We have about 13 or 14 kids, but they're all pretty good players."
   The Longhorn freshmen have drawn comparisons to the group of players that finished up football in 2000, which included Chris Dunn, Michael Phillips, Tank Dugger and Chris Gambill. That group enjoyed the most success Johnson County football has had in over a decade.
   "That was a tough pack, but this group is real comparable," Atwood said. "We really enjoy these young boys. They play hard. They're fun to watch."
   The group nearly pulled off a monumental upset last Tuesday night when the Longhorns came up just short against the Elizabethton Cyclones.
   EHS pulled it out 24-20, but not before Johnson County put a scare into the eyes of the conference leaders.
   The outcome could have been a lot different had it not been for seven Johnson County turnovers, and the fact that running back Nathan Paisley was out with an injury.
   "If we have him we probably win," Atwood said. " All their touchdowns came on big plays, and we scored on long drives.
   "That's become a good rivalry. They're as good as anybody in East Tennessee when they're playing well. Ryan Witten does a good job."
   The team's quarterback is Jeff Brinker. Brinker is a player that Atwood says is very physical, and he doesn't get the team beat.
   "He does an outstanding job, and he doesn't make a lot of turnovers," Atwood said. "He handles things well. He is definitely the most physical player in the Mountain Lakes Freshman Conference."
   Like Brinker, linebacker Thomas Moore has seen quite a bit of action on the varsity in 2002. Moore also has played some fullback in freshman action.
   Atwood was very pleased with how Moore played in the Elizabethton freshman game.
   "He played well at middle linebacker and blocked well at fullback against Elizabethton," Atwood said. "He played great last week."
   Paisley has also shined on the offensive and defensive sides of the football for the Longhorns. The MVP of the Little Watauga Junior High football conference last season has shown why he should be a force to be reckoned with in the next few years.
   "Nathan's not our fastest back, but he gets to full speed pretty quick," Atwood said. "We moved him from linebacker to corner to get some speed over there. We've got a lot of linebackers, and we need some speed on the corners."
   The biggest surprise of the group has been T.R. Smith. Smith is a guy who has defeated the odds, and is now seeing action on the varsity.
   "The biggest plus for T.R. is that he grew a little bit," Atwood said. "He wasn't the toughest player last year, but he is getting where contact doesn't bother him. We always knew he could do it, but there were some doubters. He's been the real deal. He fits well into Mike's system. He's one of our hardest workers."
   While these guys look to possibly be starters next year on the varsity, with that will come high expectations.
   Atwood thinks this group has the potential to be special, but it's going to take a lot of hard work.
   "They just don't want to compete," Atwood said. "They want to be frontrunners. But it's going to take a lot more than talking. These guys are going to have to work."