The question for the Eagles is the same it’s been the previous two seasons: Can Independence win a state title?
For a team that’s 29-1 since 2015, with one championship and another runner-up finish, the obvious answer is, “yes.”
But if Independence’s 28-14 loss to Blackman in a 24-minute exhibition last Friday is any indication, the Eagles have a lot of work to do.
“The scrimmage opened our eyes to where we are, and where we need to be,” coach Scott Blade said afterwards. “We’re a long ways away, but we’re doing some good things. We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and get better at a lot.”
However, the Eagles have enough talent to make it interesting
The passing game leads the way
Independence will throw frequently from its spread attack. When you’ve got a pair of wide receivers like juniors T.J. Sheffield and Kendrell Scurry, why wouldn’t you?
Each player has a track record of outstanding performance, and each has received a four-star prospect rating by at least one recruiting service.
Sheffield is the most versatile of the pair. The 5-10, 175-pound wideout carved up the Blackman secondary with a bunch of short-to-medium receptions, but he’s also a deep threat and can be used at multiple spots.
“He’ll do whatever we’ve got to do,” Blade said. “He’ll be in the backfield, he’ll be at slot receiver, he’ll also be on the outside. It depends on where the best matchups are. If they take a great corner and put them on Kendrell, well, let’s see if they’ve got two great corners.”
The 6-foot-3 Scurry is the less-polished of the two. He needs to add bulk, but he’s probably the more explosive of the pair. He caught a 41-yard scoring strike against Blackman on Friday.
He’s not afraid of anybody,” Blade said. “He’s pretty confident in himself. He wants the ball, which is what you want from your receivers.”
Blade also has confidence in quarterback Nathan Cisco.
“We feel like he’s going to be our quarterback of the future. He’s done well and he’s poised and ready to go,” Blade said.
Protecting him is another matter.
“We’re a little banged up at the moment, but regardless, we’ve got to protect better,” Blade said. “Our strength is our skill positions, so we don’t have to give (Cisco) four seconds to pass, but we’ve got to give him three, and when it’s a quick pass, be able to get in their way. Unfortunately we didn’t do that Friday; our quarterback was under duress.”
At least the Eagles won’t lack for size among their five up front. Linemen Jett Katina, Mekhi Love, Beau Myers, Connor Pratt and Carter Runnion all have listed weights between 240 and 265.
Defense needs health, consistency
Blade’s defense was missing some parts in the Blackman scrimmage, but still, he wasn’t pleased with what he saw on Friday.
“We’re really searching for an identity,” Blade said. “We’re searching for something we can do consistently well. Right now, we’re not doing anything consistently well, so we have to figure that out in a hurry.”
The Eagles’ best defensive player is probably Javon Robertson, an all-district free safety last year. But team needs have him splitting time between his old position and cornerback.
“We’re trying to figure out some things with the corner position,” Blade said. “We don’t have any experience there.”
Jake Huner and Colby Logan, two of last year’s better defenders for a defense that held opponents to 21 points or less in a dozen games, return. Their positions are also in flux.
“They’ve kind of switched roles,” Blade said. “Colby’s moved back to strong safety; Jake’s moved to ‘will’ (linebacker.) Both have a terrific nose for the football. Both are downhill goals. But we’ve got to get more consistency up front from the defensive line to free them up.”
Blade also calls Tyrus Jackson, who missed Friday’s scrimmage, “… really, a potentially good linebacker for us.”
Punter Kyle Greenwell helps Independence flip the field.
“He’s kicking the snot out of the ball. …. He’s potentially a scholarship player. We’ve seen him kick 70-plus in practice,” Blade said.
Kicking could be a bigger struggle; kicker Weston Landry was just 9-for-15 on PAT’s last year.
If Independence wins its second state title in three years, it’ll be no mystery as to why.
“We’re blessed with good skill positions. … We’re going to ride that all the way,” Blade says.
And he’s right. Few teams anywhere, not just in Tennessee, have a one-two punch at receiver as talented as Sheffield and Scurry are.
Blackman sure looked like the better team on Friday, and Blade wasn’t using injuries as a crutch.
“That’s not any excuse, we got our tails kicked,” he said.
But to count out an Independence team that wasn’t near full strength would be a mistake.
“If we can improve (those things), we can be as good as we want,” Blade said. “If we don’t, we can get beaten by anybody.”