Don't look for Highlanders to slow down


STAR Staff

   The Cloudland Highlanders have quite a few things going for them this upcoming football season. For starters they are moving down to 1A, which will provide a slightly softer schedule.
   The also have the confidence of two Watauga Conference championships under their belts, and high hopes for their upcoming campaign. Oh, I forgot to mention... They have talent growing on trees.
   All intangibles aside, the boys in blue and gold will be literally running over the competition during this upcoming football season. With some real beef up front and a vastly improved defense, it's hard not to be optimistic about the 'Landers.
   All eyes will of course be on sophomore quarterback Mark Byrd, who in his freshman season guided the 'Landers to an unblemished regular-season mark while compiling some rather impressive statistics, the least of which was leading an offense that averaged 429.9 yards and 46.1 points per game.
   Some solid off-season training has added 20 pounds to the 'Landers signal caller, and 'Lander fans can look forward to seeing more of him throughout this season.
   Cloudland skipper Mike Lunsford will be looking for big things from his sophomore star this season.
   "His role is going to expand" said Lunsford. "It's going to be different for him, because this season he's a target."
   In front of Byrd will be one of the best offensive lines in the entire region, featuring a good deal of size and tenacity. Keith Buchanan (6-2, 295 Sr.), John Hicks (6-0, 235 Sr.), John Townson (6-2, 295 Sr.), Dale Baker (5-10, 250 Jr.) and Jake Gibbs (6-0, 303 So.) will be called upon to plow the road for a platoon of Lander backs.
   "We will go as far as the offensive line can take us," said Lunsford. "We've got some guys that will give us some depth, that will help."
   In the backfield for the 'Landers this season will be a good crop of talent that is still searching for someone to step up and be the workhorse. For the first part of the season, the Landers will have staff of backs sharing the duties.
   The 'Landers will be looking for contributions from Dustin Sluder (5-9, 160 Jr.) and Derrick Birchfield, (5-9, 160 Jr.) from the tailback spot, while relying on Mark Barnett, (6-0, 190 Jr.) and Jason Birchfield, (5-8, 190 Jr.) to handle the fullback duties.
   Lunsford is optimistic about his lightly-tested backfield.
   "All of those guys give us a different look," he said. "We are definitely going to spread it around."
   There is little doubt that the 'Landers will put points on the board, but an experienced and swarming defense will be looking to throw a couple of shutouts this year as well.
   With an already accomplished defensive unit that led the Watauga Conference last season -- allowing just over 200 yards a game -- improvement is not an easy thing to ask for. However, the Lander "D" is looking quite sharp.
   With a defensive line that is a mirror image of the o-line, the ironmen up front will play both ways for the 'Landers. Buchanan, Hicks, Odom and Townson will spend time clogging the holes from their d-line spots while keeping their linebackers free to roam.
   Lunsford commented on his front four, saying, "It's not that we're doing anything different, we are just playing it with better people."
   The linebacking corps will be looking to fill some shoes this season, as last year's defensive middleman, Allen Barnett, was lost to graduation. Eager for the opportunity is younger brother Mark Barnett.
   Mark is looking to take over in the run-stuffing role, while having an improved defensive front ahead of him. On his flanks will be outside backers Jason Birchfield and Dakota Benfield (5-9, 155 So.), who also look to play a large role in Cloudland's defensive scheme.
   Depth will also be available at linebacker as David McKinney (5-8, 145 Jr.) and Dustin Sluder will provide relief at the position.
   One area in which the 'Landers must improve is pass defense. Statistically, the 'Landers' only flaw during the previous season was a last-place showing in the pass defense category, yielding 87.6 yards per game.
   Due to these defensive shortcomings, Lunsford will ask for added performance from Derrick Birchfield and Gregory Birchfield, slated to see time on the corners. Byrd will fill the safety position to round out the secondary.
   Rounding out the 'Lander attack are the special teams and the kicking game. Taking care of the punting activities will be Byrd while placekicking will be between Jason Birchfield and Mark Barnett.
   Overall the outlook for the Landers is exceptional. However, in classic Lunsford form, the 'Landers captain is keeping it simple.
   "I tell our kids that our main focus should be to play to our potential," said Lunsford. "I want us to play as well as we can play."
   Two major question marks will remain for the 'Landers during the upcoming season.
   - Due to a good number of boys playing both ways, fourth quarter stamina will be a gray area for the boys in blue.
   - Also key injuries could prove disastrous for the 'Landers, as it would for any 1A program.
   That's why they play the games, so to speak, but one thing is certain for the Cloudland this season. If these concerns can be answered, the sky is the limit for the 'Landers.