By John Balch
Rattler Head Coach Jeff Jones is ready for his team to open the 2016 season and see what they really have to offer.
“We’re at the point where we can scrimmage and practice as much as we want, but we need to start playing other teams to get better,” Jones said. “Sometimes, you have to play other teams to really show what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can start working on them.”
Jones had hoped to start the new season with everyone healthy. When the team convened to start the practice season, Jones thought he would achieve that goal after spending the majority of last season dealing with various hurt players, particularly his starting quarterback and a running back he expected to lead the team.
Senior quarterback Ryan Roberts is now healthy after getting hurt early last season and eventually being sidelined for the remainder of the 2015 schedule. Senior flanker Cameron Snowden, who Jones said is the team’s quickest player, is also now healthy after a nagging injury kept him from giving 100 percent last season.
“They’re both finally back…and that’s good,” Jones laughed.
But, no more than he had made the comment, senior running back Gavin Gardner, who lead the team last year with more than 1,200 yards rushing, walked into the coaches’ office, his broken hand from a non-football injury cradled in a cast and still swollen from a recent surgery.
“Four to six weeks,” Jones said about Gardner’s expected return.
Jones will look to Roberts, Snowden, senior Jack Stuard and junior Tyler Tomlinson to fill the gap in the backfield left by Gardner’s injury. Providing the push at fullback will be senior Chris French, who sat out last year after being hurt in an ATV wreck, and junior Bryle Fatheree.
“They are both hard-nosed,” Jones said of his fullbacks. “Chris has really matured and we expect him to really step up his senior year.”
Jones also hopes to showcase Roberts’ accuracy with a passing game expanded by the team’s spread offense.
“He’s usually 95 percent accurate,” Jones said. In the Red/White scrimmage game, Roberts was quick getting off long fade passes that found their targets in senior Troy Stone and junior J.C. Motley. Stuard and junior tight end Jarrett Faulkner are also expected targets for the Rattler passing game.
Jones and his coaching staff also spent the practice season putting together a new front line to replace the experienced linemen that graduated last year. Expected down front are seniors Wyatt Van Camp, Laramie Beshears and Nathan Libranda, juniors Evan Pickett, Skylar Duke and Alec Pettigrew and sophomores Ethan Pickett and Brody Hignight.
“They’re pretty young but I like their attitude a lot. I like the way they are coming along,” Jones said. “They will give us some depth in this area.”
Jones said a big emphasizes was put on defense this practice season. Many of the offensive line will step across to defense with back-up expected from sophomore Sam Corson and junior Cody Nolan with Faulkner down inside at tackle. Ethan Pickett will also work at linebacker along with French.
The Rattler secondary will have plenty of speed with senior Scott Evans, who also missed last season due to injury, and Stuard expected to see time at defensive end, Stone at corner and Roberts at safety. Motley, sophomore Dawson Watts and junior Jamie Jackson will also work at the corner position.
“We need to work at getting off blocks and making tackles, but I like they way we are getting to the ball on that side,” Jones said of his defense.
Jones said he expects this year’s strong point to be how the team bonds together.
“The best thing about this team is just how tight they are together,” he said. “They really support each other.”
The coach is also expecting his senior class to provide the leadership and experience needed for a winning season.
“They understand, for the most part, that football can’t be a selfish sport,” Jones said. “They’re pretty selfless guys and they understand their role in accomplishing that.”
Murfreesboro will open the season at home Friday night with a Rattler-on-Rattler contest when they host Magazine. Next up is Horatio at Horatio and Hampton at Hampton before the Rattlers return to host back-to-back conference game against Lafayette County (homecoming) and Mount Ida, who are picked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
“We’ve got the two top teams right off the bat,” Jones said. “So, we need to get this thing together in a hurry.”
Conference newcomers Mountain Pine will host the Rattlers on Oct. 7 before Mineral Springs takes Holloway Field on Oct. 14 followed by another home game with Spring Hill. The Rattlers will close out the regular season with road games to Foreman on Oct. 28 and Dierks on Thursday, Nov. 3.
“I think, from top to bottom, we have one of the most competitive conferences,” Jones said. “You know, that’s what makes it fun.”