The 7A Grissom Tigers will play the 6A Cullman Bearcats in a non region game and both teams are ready for the fresh start to the football season. Last year, both teams made the playoffs but both teams lost in the first round and are looking to improve on a first round loss in the playoffs in 2021.
Last season in the first round, Grissom lost to eventual state champion Thompson while Cullman lost to Shades Valley. Both teams are looking to improve on those playoff marks this season. Last year, Cullman defeated Grissom 23-0 to start the 2020 season.
Grissom, under first-year head coach Rich Dutton, looks to change a few things and build on what they accomplished from last season. Depth is key to this Grissom team that they didn't have much of last year. "We are really focusing on the depth of the team," said Tigers Dutton. "We want our backups to get a lot of reps so they will be ready to play when called. After practice, we are really communicating to the team the good things and the things we really need to improve on so I think it is really going to make an improvement for the players."
On offense, there will be a new quarterback but the three running backs return. Seniors Mark Howard, DaQuwan Hood and Caleb Hunt will get carries in the game. "Mark had a great offseason, getting his body ready for this season," added Dutton. "DaQuwan had a lot of carries last season and has exceptional vision. All three are seniors and they are ready to play. They all have their own signature. You have have a different offense when one comes in even though it is the same play."
Who runs the Grissom offense is the big question coming into this game with Cullman. Two players, Rynzo Crutcher and Landon Currie, look to get the job. "It's been fun watching these two guys compete," said Dutton. "These two guys are working hard. We have different options that we are looking at right now." Crutcher has a baseball background while Currie can play defensive back for the Tigers but has the most experience between the two players.
The offensive line took a big blow when Jersey Sitko took an injury in the Spring. His status for the upcoming season is still up in the air. Sitko was one of the major leaders in the weight room in the offseason. Center Steven Crigger at center looks to anchor the line with Sitko out. Austin Griffin, Javien Larry, Cole Lawson and Dylan Hyatt round out the offensive line. Crigger, Griffin and Larry played for the Tigers last season.
Another area on offense with little experience is the receiving group due to graduation. Tariq Thaxton, Tristan Graham, Jalik Clark, R.J. Johnson all are juniors. Senior Devin Barker looks to get into the mix at receiver.
On defense, a few key players make things happen on and off the field. KD Long and Detrick Jones play big roles for the team. "These two set the tone in the weight room, hallways and everywhere," added Dutton. "There are no off days for Detrick. When I'm at home, he is calling me up wanting me to give him more work. Throw in Colin Lawson in the mix with those other two. These guys are highly intelligent kids and they are fun to be around." Jones has an offer from UT-Martin.
In the middle at linebacker, Kyle Beasley and Mark McDonald get the start. Patrick Fitzgerald is in the mix early in the season. The outside linebackers are Jackson Bofenkamp and Jalin Edwards. AJ Mack will get some playing time at that position.
In the secondary, Hunt will be used at corner. Coach Dutton refers to Hunt as a special player that we can use at a lot of positions. The other corner will be TQ Williams. Aiden Howard will be the backup at corner. The two safeties are Justice Pohl and Tariq Evans.
Kaiden Burke will handle all the kicking duties and has a big leg. The sophomore kicker will be a big asset putting opposing teams on the 20-yard line to start drives when he kicks the ball into the end zone.
For Cullman, they have made big strides in getting into the playoffs and they want to make a deeper run this season. The talent and coaching is their for them to make the next big jump in the playoffs.
On offense, first year quarterback Ryan Skinner can throw the football for the Bearcats. Another quarterback is a change of pace runner in QB/DB Jamar Kay. Kay can do everything for the Bearcats along at his corner position on defense. Both look to play on Thursday night, but which one will start? "Jamar plays a lot of important roles for us," said Bearcats head coach Oscar Glasscock. "He is our best cover guy, our best returner, really good slot receiver along with being a very talented player. We have to be smart the way we play him that we don't overuse him. We want him 100 percent when he is in the game."
At running back, Jake Dueland and Noah Kee lead the way for the Bearcats. "Both of these guys have game experience," added Glasscock. "Jake has made game winning plays and has been in big situations, he is just a playmaker. Noah is strong and is a very hard working player." Fullback Tyler Owens will be a key player in the Bearcats run game. "Tyler is a very special player and is going to give us an explosive player at fullback," said Glasscock.
The receivers have plenty of talent starting with Kaleb Heatherly. Heatherly has an offer from North Alabama but has only played football for the last two years. The 6-7, 250-pound receiver/defensive end grew up playing baseball and basketball. "Kaleb has a bright future ahead of him and has worked hard on the football field," said Glasscock. "He is a work in progress that will get better in college. Caleb is a pitcher on the Cullman baseball team, but his measurables fit for football. He is interested in playing both in college. Very proud of the progress that he has made in football. We think he is going to have a great year for us." Another top receiver for the Bearcats will be junior Nate Zills.
The offensive line will be huge for the Bearcats as they probably run the ball 85 percent of the time. Center Carson Hill, guards Evan Richards and Drew Carter along with tackles Layne Dial and Layne Parker lead the way. "Drew loves the game of football, understands the game and is a very physical player," said Glasscock. "Layne Dial had a tremendous fall camp, expecting big things from him. Layne Parker moved over to the other tackle spot and he was primarily a defensive lineman last year. He has brought some athleticism to that spot. Evan might be the strongest kid that I have coached in 28 years. He just benched 405 lbs the other day. Every player on the offense line has started or had extensive experience on the field. We feel really good about this group. This should be one of the better lines in 6A." Richards has an offer from Samford University.
On defense, the Bearcats have a chance to be real good with some good experience. We had some baseball guys come out and play football with us this year and it will bring some needed depth to the defense. Coach Glasscock is very proud of the baseball program helping out the football program.
Nose guard Mason Richards, Caleb Bates and Evan Dye anchor the defensive line for the Bearcats. "Caleb had an incredible fall and was a starter for us last year," said Glasscock. "When he was a receiver, we moved him to the D-line and has great range, strong hands with great moves. He is one of our best defensive players we have. Evan is getting bigger and stronger. Another one that put good work in the weight room. Can play fullback on offense. Mason moved over from the offensive line and has made a good transition to the D-line. A lot of potential and we are very happy with his progress." Ben Washburn is another solid defensive lineman for the Bearcats.
At linebacker, Drew Ball, Jack Standford and Cole Robertson lead the way. Ball is the leading tackler off last season. He is the heart and soul of the defense. He is very strong player. Standford is making the transition from baseball and will start at linebacker. Robertson had a great fall camp and is very physical player. Cullman has good numbers at linebacker.
The secondary has safeties Sawyer Trimble, Patton Elkins and Dylan Sessions. Sessions has a couple of NAIA offers and is the key piece in the secondary. He has battled injuries in the fall but is ready to go Thursday night. The starting corners are Kay and Max Gambrill. Kay is a big time corner and plays a big roll for the Bearcat defense and offense. Gambrill has come along and is very solid on the corner. Gambrill is a basketball guy that has made a successful transition to the football field.
This should be a good game between the two teams. This looks to be a closer game than it was last year.