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INDEPENDENCE –– They’re out there.
With all the buzz about playoff changes and Graham entering the Mountain Empire District and Galax’s prospects for a tremendous year, Grayson County is out there somewhere, avoiding much of the attention, quietly flying under the radar.
“That’s a great place to be,” Blue Devil coach Brett McPherson said.
Grayson isn’t getting a lot of hype right now, but hype in August isn’t worth much anyway. The Blue Devils are hoping they’ll have folks’ attention come November.
“All of those [subjects] are valid, too,” McPherson said. “Galax is going to be really good –– speed, size, experience. Graham may not have Ahmad Bradshaw but they’ve got the tradition. It’s football country up there. But I’m hoping as the year progresses we’ll be fitting in there.”
The Blue Devils don’t return quite as many starters as does Galax, but only by a couple. Seven offensive starters and six on defense are back from a team that finished 6-5 and handed Fort Chiswell its only district loss in the last two years.
Grayson County is deeper than it has been in years, maybe ever. Only one player is projected to be a two-way starter.
“We’ve actually been able to scrimmage our first O against our first D, 11 on 11,” said McPherson, entering his sixth year at Grayson. “I’ve never had that situation before.”
Not that a two-platoon system is the design.
“We’ve got some healthy competition,” he said. “There are some guys on offense who want to play more defense and guys on defense who want to be on the offensive side more. They can get out there if they keep working to the point where we have to put them out there.”
McPherson must replace the production lost by the graduation of quarterback Ethan Hash (1,423 yards, 12 TDs) and wideout Eric Harvey (36 rec., 783 yards).
“The biggest thing about losing Eric is that we’ll see more conventional defenses,” McPherson said. “He was always being doubled, or had a safety shading his way. We may see eight or nine in the box this year, and we haven’t seen that in a while.”
Halfback Xavier Rodriguez returns after rushing 158 times for 1,093 yards.
“He’s a strong kid. Durable,” McPherson said. “He’s got a bit of a burst about him.”
Fullback Darren Anderson (48 att., 336 yards) is a load at 5-7, 207 pounds. Jarel Smith, Zack Vaughan, Eli Bilbrey and Spencer Roberts will get some carries as well.
Despite the loss of Harvey, the Devils have a potent receiving corps led by Mikey Rodgers (27 rec., 423 yards) and Roberts.
“Mikey can be as dangerous as Eric was,” McPherson said. “Probably a little more versatile. He’s big enough to catch the ball over the middle, we can put him at a slot or at tight end, he’s got a lot of potential. Spencer looked good in our scrimmage, too.”
Triggering the offense will be Max Rodgers, a 6-2, 184-pound sophomore. McPherson hasn’t tamed down his playbook for the young QB.
“He’s really poised. He played varsity baseball [as a freshman], would have played varsity basketball if he hadn’t been hurt, so he’s not going to step back being around these older kids. There’s nothing he can’t do athletically, he just needs reps.”
Patrick Shaw (5-11, 240), Tre Parks (5-9, 239) and Daniel Crawford (5-7, 187) and a slew of tight ends lead an offensive line that returns almost intact.
“We’ve got some stuff coming back there,” McPherson said. “We’re a little bit bigger than we’ve been, too.”
Due to the losses of playmakers Harvey and Nate Cowley, McPherson feels the Blue Devils must prove themselves in the secondary. Zack Vaughan returns, as does Grayson’s lone two-way starter, Xavier Rodriguez. McPherson will fill out the secondary with safeties Issac Osborne and Eli Bilbrey. Caleb Billings will also see plenty of action.
Johnny Warren has been all over the place defensively the last two years but will settle at an inside linebacker position for his senior year, joined by returning starter Jacob Parnell. Darren Anderson can spell either one of those two. Clay Anders has earned a job at one outside linebacker spot.
Jarel Smith and Ty McMillian give Grayson County two returners at defensive end, supported by Josh Brannock, Tyler Carrico and Dylan Morris. A competitive battle for the two tackle positions is going on among Brett Phipps, Tre Parks, Patrick Shaw, Hardin Halsey and Eric Bryant, among others.
Mario Ruiz converted 33 extra points last year and will handle the placekicking duties. Zack Vaughan will do the deep snapping.
Being the only two-way starter, it’s only fitting that Xavier Rodriguez handle a couple of special teams chores as well. He has the leg to be a good punter and has shown his value as a kick returner, too. Spencer Roberts and John Bilbrey will be deep at times for the Devils.
Like Carroll County and Galax, Grayson County must navigate a rugged early part of its schedule before it even begins to think about MED play.
“With a sophomore quarterback I worry about having success early,” McPherson said. “Max is a confident kid, but that does concern me.”
Following an opener at Alleghany, the Devils take on Chilhowie, Rural Retreat, Clintwood and Carroll County before hosting Graham in both teams’ league opener.
“That’s a tough row to hoe,” he said.
One other significant change in store for 2011 is that for the first time, Grayson County and Galax play on the final Friday of the regular season. There’s a strong possibility that the winner will take home the district title.
“I think it sets up nice to be playing them at the end,” McPherson said. “I’m assuming Galax will be 9-0 when that gets here. I think from a morale standpoint it may be more important than ever. Who wouldn’t want to win it this year with Graham coming in, Fort’s solid, Galax is up, it would be a great time to win it. You’d definitely earn it.”