HEAD COACH: J.R. Kirby (3rd season)
LAST YEAR: 8-3, forfeit loss to Milan in second round of Class 3A playoffs
RETURNING STARTERS: 4 offense, 7 defense
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: QB Jalen Fayne, DB A.C. Mason-Young, RB Jamarion Dowell, LB Christian Barbee, RB Torris Smith, OL Chris Godwin, OL Dorian Robinson, OL Deondre Dyson, DL Eumorrion Flowers, DL Ian Robinson
KEY PLAYERS LOST: RB Marcus Hayes, LB Lareko Burton, QB Carson Ruffin, OL Kevin Earwood, WR Dalton Dickerson, OL Reed Chipman
If you make the playoffs and don’t win a state championship, your season always ends on the field with a loss.
Well, not always.
Last season Covington was preparing to play Milan, a team that beat them in overtime in the regular season, in a heavily-hyped second round playoff game. A few hours before the game, however, head coach J.R. Kirby had to tell his players they were going to forfeit because of COVID contact tracing issues within the Covington program.
“It was very depressing,” said senior Eumorrion Flowers.
“I feel like it was a bad way to go out because I thought we were going to go get ‘em and play for a state championship,” said senior Jalen Fayne. “I don’t take anything for granted now.”
“I still think about it,” said junior Jamarion Dowell, “and I use it for motivation.”
Kirby said telling his players their season was over was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do as a coach. It became harder when Milan ended up advancing to the state title game.
“I think about it everyday, walking in and telling those guys it was over,” Kirby said. “It was tough watching Milan play in the state championship game. We’re not going to hide from that. We felt like it was between us and Milan to get to state.
To have it end like that with those seniors, all the kids, really, was completely devastating.”
This year the Chargers will be looking to settle things on the field, and they appear to have the talent and experience to make a deep playoff fun.
The offense starts with senior quarterback Fayne. After starter Carson Ruffin was injured in Week 7, Fayne, who had never played quarterback, took over as the starter and fared well. The team only ended up playing two more games because of forfeits, but Fayne went 1-1 while he learned on the fly.
In the spring, Tanner Stewart was the starter, but an injury forced Fayne back to quarterback and Kirby has liked how he has played. The Chargers will run a shotgun offense to utilize Fayne’s athletic ability, which is considerable.
“Once we get in space, I think we’re dangerous,” Kirby said. “We’ll be under center in some packages and that will get busted out on somebody pretty early, but I feel like this offense gives us the best chance to win right now.”
Marcus Hayes and Flowers got the bulk of the carries last season, but Hayes graduated and Flowers has moved to the defensive side of the ball. That means Jamarion Dowell, who saw plenty of action in 2020, will get more of an opportunity to shine. A.C. Mason-Young, Toris Smith, Devin Tate, Skylan Smith, Blake Travis and Jordan Haley will also be in the mix.
“I feel like we have four or five guys at running back and wing back who can help us,” Kirby said.
Only two starters are back on the offensive line. Senior Christopher Godwin moves from tackle to center and junior Dorian Robinson returns as a starter. The starting five will be rounded out with senior Deondre Dyson and juniors Jaylen Hall and Dorian Robinson, all three of which have experience.
“I really like our offensive line,” Kirby said. “I feel like we have five as strong as we’ve had here in a while.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the most pressing issue is replacing all-state linebacker Lareko Burton, who graduated last spring. That responsibility will fall largely on senior Christian Barbee, a three-year starter. At 6-1, 185 pounds, he’s bigger than Burton and has the athletic ability to move from sideline to sideline.
Mason-Young, who plays linebacker, nickel back and safety, is a dynamic junior who holds an offer from the University of Tennessee.
Other key players on the defensive side of the ball include Flowers, a 5-11, 220 pound defensive tackle, and Toris Smith, Malachia Somerville, Tyron Smith, Kydrick Mason, Gabe Wellintin, Devin Tate, Collin McDaniel, Kemarian Nisby and Keonte Nisby.
“We’re going to put our best on defense because if you can’t stop anybody nothing else matters,” Kirby said. “We’re definitely going to miss Lareko, but Barbee can play for sure. I feel like we have the potential to be just as fast, if not faster, than we were last year. We have 10 or 11 guys on both sides of the ball who can get us there and help us reach our goals this year.”
Speaking of goals, they are pretty much the same every year for a program with a rich postseason history.
“I feel like, with the work we’ve been putting in, we’re going to have a good year as long as we go out there and do what we need to do,” Fayne said.
“This is going to be a good team,” Mason-Young said. “We’re looking pretty good with players on both sides of the ball who can make plays. You can’t count us out.”
Kirby wants to make last year’s season-ending experience a distant memory.
“There were a lot of tears in the locker room that day,” Kirby said. “That’s over and our motto now is road to redemption.”