'Horns set to meet new challenges head on

By MATT HILL
STAR Staff

   MOUNTAIN CITY -- With the Johnson County Longhorns losing nine offensive starters from last year, there are some big shoes to fill.
   But Longhorn head coach Mike Atwood thinks his squad will be like a pair of Nike tennis shoes. They'll just do it.
   The 2001 Johnson County football team is a speedy bunch that has found replacements for stars like quarterback Chris Gambill, tailback Chris Dunn and linebacker Michael Pennington. But if these Longhorns are going to equal or better last season's mark of 8-3, they will have to do it against tough competition.
   The Longhorns are moving up from the Class 2A Watauga Conference, into the Class 4A Big Eight Conference, which features teams like Elizabethton and Tennessee High.
   "It's going to be tough," Atwood said. "We actually have a little better team speed, so we might be able to match up just a little better with the athletes. But our size is down.
   "We're just going to have to open up the offense and put our best athletes on defense."
   The Longhorns pretty much had no choice but to move up two levels. Their school enrollment was too high to stay in Class 2A, and there is only one local team in Region 1-3A.
   Johnson County will try to make the best of the situation despite having a very inexperienced offense.
   That offense will feature two quarterbacks. Adam Johnson has the most experience, but Jason Poteet impressed Atwood early on and has thrown himself into the mix.
   "I'm sure they're both going to play early on," Atwood said.
   With the jump to Class 4A, Atwood wants to open it up more for his quarterbacks.
   "We're going to have to open up our offense and throw the ball a lot more than we have," Atwood said.
   Josh Rich was scheduled to be the starting tailback, but recently injured his hand and will miss the first of the season. But Rich should be a factor at some point, as he rushed for over 500 yards last year backing up Dunn.
   That means Justin Allen will most likely be the starting tailback when the season kicks off next Friday night. Matt Eggers will also see some time at tailback.
   Wes Hamby gets the nod at fullback. He is a returning starter at that position. The slotback position is in the hands of Michael Reid when the Longhorns are in a three-back set.
   Junior Paisley and football newcomer Tommy Short will be the receivers. Short is a basketball and track star for the Longhorns.
   "He's probably the best athlete we have," Atwood said.
   The other returning starter on offense is Tolby Lowe. He will be manning the right guard position.
   Joining Lowe on the line is left tackle Matt Dunn, left guard Josh Price, center Justin Bishop, right tackle Bill McMillian and tight end Ricky Shaw.
   The Longhorns return seven starters on a defense that Atwood is very high on.
   "I feel good about our defense," Atwood said. "We've got a little more team speed than we have in the past."
   Jesse Cranford and Bishop return at the defensive end spots, while Lowe and McMillian will be the tackles.
   Lowe believes both the offensive and defensive lines should be solid, and also thinks he will do well personally.
   "We worked out hard in the weight room this summer," Lowe said. "We've got a good strength coach that pushes us to our limits. I believe I'll be able to compete with anybody else on any other team."
   Hamby and Adam Leonard will be the inside linebackers. The outside linebacker spots are in the hands of Aaron Payne and Lucas Moreno. Eggers should also contribute heavily at outside linebacker.
   Reid and Allen are starting at the corners, but Rich will see time there once he returns from injury.
   Time at the free safety spot will be split between Short and Johnson.
   Leonard will handle the punting and kicking duties.
   With the Longhorns moving up, coupled with the loss of several key players, expectations are a little lower. But Atwood still believes Johnson County can succeed in 2001.
   "We're looking to finish somewhere in the middle," Atwood said. "But we're really going to have to play well."