North Murray High School football fans have a lot of new names to learn this season when it comes to the starting lineup.
From quarterback to nose guard and at lots of other positions, the Mountaineers will rely on players who didn’t have the responsibility of carrying the team last year, when it finished 5-5 in coach David Gann’s first season. It was the fourth season overall and third against varsity competition for North Murray, which went 1-19 over the previous two years.
The Mountaineers finished 2-5 against Region 5-3A competition in 2012, but they started the season 4-1 overall and had more legitimate hopes for the state playoffs than ever before entering the season’s second half.
A big reason the Mountaineers made progress was senior quarterback Brady Swilling, and one of North Murray’s biggest priorities in the offseason has been finding a suitable replacement for Swilling, who finished with more than 1,500 yards each rushing and passing last year. Swilling, who also played basketball and was a state medalist high jumper, is now a walk-on at Georgia Tech.
Hinton McConkey, a junior, is slotted to start behind center when the Mountaineers open their season Aug. 30 at Southeast Whitfield. A wide receiver last season, McConkey has impressed Gann as the leader of the Mountaineers’ triple-option offense.
“Our quarterback, Hinton McConkey, has really come on,” said Gann, whose team spent the latter portion of last week at Tusculum College in northeastern Tennessee, the same campus at which Dalton held its off-site preseason camp during the same time frame. “We lost a great one last year with Brady, but I really think Hinton has the potential to be that person. ... Brady does things Hinton couldn’t do, but Hinton does things Brady couldn’t do.”
Said McConkey, “We’re just two different types of runners.”
At 6 feet, 2 inches and 190 pounds, Swilling was bigger than McConkey (5-10, 160) is now. But McConkey is shiftier, and Gann said he has better arm strength.
“The thing Hinton doesn’t have is Brady’s experience,” Gann said.
And that’s really the case all around for the Mountaineers. On defense, the returning starters are senior defensive end Christian Rangel, senior middle linebacker John Chastain and junior cornerback Matthew Clayton.
But defense has a narrow edge on offense in the Friday-night experience department. Aside from senior tight end Justin Mathis and junior center Caleb Campbell, all of the potential starters on the other side of the ball will be new. McConkey is not overly concerned about that, though.
“We don’t play young,” he said. “We have a lot of sophomores who are stepping up.”
Running back Jacob Mays and fullback Christian Bukle, the other backfield starters, were also seniors — and like Swilling, replacing them means replacing a lot of contributions. Mays rushed for 591 yards and six touchdowns and had a team-best 28 receptions for 450 yards and nine scores. He also returned kicks and punts, averaging 33.1 yards per attempt. Bukle rushed for 533 yards on 69 carries, including eight touchdowns.
Drake McGowan and Leonardo Lechuga, both sophomores, are expected to start at running back and fullback, respectively.
Gann knows there are challenges that come with replacing a big senior class, but he sees an upside to his new starters.
“Our entire backfield is new. Our receiving corps is new. So we have a lot of new kids. I like how some of them have stepped up,” Gann said. “For the things we need to work on, our kids don’t know how to play at a Friday-night level, because they’ve all played freshman and (junior varsity) football. They don’t finish runs, stay on blocks or break the huddle. They don’t hustle and play as hard as a Friday night-winning football team does. That’s what we need to work on to finish in the next month.
“The good thing about it is most (of the starters) will be here next year and some the year after that. We’ve got a young football team with a lot of games left to play.”