HEAD COACH: J.R. Kirby (5th season)
LAST YEAR: 11-3, lost to East Nashville in 3A state semifinals
RETURNING STARTERS: 5 offense, 5 defense
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: QB Braden Gover, RB Skylan Smith, K/LB Gabe Wellentin, RB Ty Beard, WR Ryan Mize, OL Jackson Kirby, OL Cayden Fuller
KEY PLAYERS LOST: DB A.C. Mason-Young, RB Jamarion Dowell, OL Dorian Robinson, DL Ian Robinson, LB Kydric Mason, DL Aytrun Smith
Every high school football team across the nation shares the same goal: to hold a gold ball in December. Unfortunately, many don’t reach it, but an expectation bar is normally created that coaches strive to reach.
Some teams and their respective fanbase are content with winning five or more games with a ticket booked to playoffs, but at Covington High, that doesn’t cut it.
“Other programs go 5-5 or 4-6 and they’ll be alright. Here in Covington, that does not fly,” said head Coach J.R. Kirby, who is entering his fifth season as ringleader.
Covington set the standard high and makes sure they don’t disappoint the supporters, and with a new season around the corner, the Chargers plan on continuing to make the people of C-town happy.
However, it is not easy as it sounds in this upcoming campaign.
For starters, four teams- Liberty Tech, McNairy, Scotts Hill, and Westview- were added to Region 7-3A, which tallies up to seven games that count towards region standings. Outside of those matchups, they will have to play Fairley, a strong powerhouse Memphis team that reached the state semis in 2A.
In addition, Covington opens up with county rival Munford, and hosts Brighton the following week.
“It’s a blessing and a curse to have to play them early because you play them, you’re going to get tested, you know the competition and you want to come out healthy,” Kirby stated.
A second obstacle is all-state players like Mr. Football Semifinalist Jamarion Dowell and A.C. Mason-Young graduated. Not to mention Dorian Robinson and Kydric Mason, who were major factors as well.
A slew of young players have to mature and develop quickly entering into a tough schedule. Nevertheless, taking good competition early is what Kirby believes will help his young team.
“We’re going to get really tested this off-season and the first two weeks and go straight to Dyersburg for the first region game. We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves going forward this first month,” he added.
A positive is Braden Gover returning as starting quarterback and helped out Covington’s passing game. As a junior, he threw for 702 yards- a huge improvement from their 236 passing yards the season prior- and averaged 14.2 yards per completion with two interceptions.
He also rushed for four touchdowns.
“He’s got the skill set and he can flat-swing it. He’s a good enough athlete to hurt you with his feet, too,” Kirby said about the senior.
In 7-on-7 matchups, Gover has already thrown 20 touchdowns with zero interceptions. His development is very vital for the fairly new offense that the Chargers developed in a season of running an option.
“We’re going to open up and throw it to him. We’re going to try to beat you with his arm as well,” said Kirby.
Junior Skylan Smith has big shoes to fill with being the next trending running back for Covington, but his stat line as a sophomore shows huge promises for the amount of impact he’ll bring to the table.
Smith averaged eight yards per carry, ran for 1,467 yards with 17 touchdowns. He also had nine receptions for 126 yards.
Running alongside Jalen Fayne and Dowell helped his game out ten-fold.
“They taught me how it is to run a ball for Covington High,” the young star said, “You got to run it with heart, you can’t go out there and be scared.”
As they continue to implement a new style of offense, Smith has become acquainted to it.
“I am excited because it gives us multiple ways to move the football around the field,” he said, “We can either hand it off, pitch it or quarterback-keep it.”
Kirby sets the plays that will give Smith the ball a lot, and hand it off to him in numerous ways. He trusts Smith to be the number one option due to his experience as a ball-holder.
“He’s going to get his carries,” he emphasized, “And, our offense, the way we run it, he’s going to be able to catch the ball, run the ball, sweeps. He’s going to be able to get the ball a lot of different ways, and be dynamic in space.”
Kirby added: “I expect him to have a monster year. He’s been in some of them big games, and he started the semifinals. The pressure is not going to be on him, he’s just going to go out and play and do what he needs to do.”
Ty Beard and Ryan Mize are other players that will touch the ball. Aden Deverell will be the wideout to watch with his 6-4 frame.
Defense starts with Oscar Brock and Daniel Harrison leading the pack.
Jackson Kirby and Cayden Fuller will be key offensive linemen to add.
“I think our strength on our football team is up front on both sides on the ball and in the box. Offensive line, we’re probably as big as we’ve been in a while,” Kirby said regarding the big men up front.
So, to go back to expectations, the Chargers are aware that they are placed on a higher pedestal than most football programs and if they don’t make it to the playoffs, then the season will be considered a disappointment. Nevertheless, Kirby knows that the schedule will help develop his team, and, by November, he feels that this will be the team to beat.
“They understand the expectations here,” he mentioned, “I tell them, we don’t hide it from them. The expectation here is to win ball games, to win championships, and try to compete to go to Chattanooga and play for a state championship.”
“We’ve done it six times in this program,”Kirby continued, “Other people talk about wanting to go play for a state championship. We’ve done it before here, we know what it looks like as a coaching staff. These kids have grown up watching us win, and they know the expectations that are there.”