PREP FOOTBALL: New faces, same winning results pictured for ‘The Haven’

Terry Davis, Special to The New Tri-State Defender | 7/28/2017, 11:39 a.m.
When the team you coach is the defending Tennessee Class 6A football champion after winning the school’s second state championship ...
While many of last year’s players have moved on, the players who will be around Whitehaven Head Coach Rodney Saulsberry this season are being drilled to trust the process. (Photos: Terry Davis)

When the team you coach is the defending Tennessee Class 6A football champion after winning the school’s second state championship in the last five years, the way forward is to focus on title number three.

Pencil in Rodney Saulsberry as the head coach in that scenario and Whitehaven High School as the team and you have a picture of the future that the coach and the 2017 team are out to complete.

Mr. Football (2016) Aubrey Miller is out of the mix, having moved on to the University of Missouri. So is all-purpose running back Kylan Watkins, who is playing for the University of Tennessee at Martin football team this fall.

And while those are serious challenges, the more immediate hurdle for Saulsberry and crew is finding teams to fill out the schedule. The Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association (TSSAA) reclassified schools and some of Whitehaven’s standard games were removed.

With the season only a few weeks away the Tigers are trying to schedule a game with a team from Alabama to have a 10-game schedule.

“It (the scheduling process) was extremely stressful,” Saulsberry said. “Hopefully it will work out that we get this last game. This has been one stress that hopefully that we never have again.”

The Tigers will have one of the toughest schedules for anyone in the state this season. Of the nine games on the schedule, seven are teams that made the playoffs for the State Championship. Three of the teams – East, Lausanne and Trezevant – emerged as champions.

“To be the best you have to play the best,” Saulsberry said. “We like competition. We don’t shy away from any competition. That is what we are always looking for.”

The Tigers’ coaching staff has already begun to drill into the players that you can’t live off of last year’s glory.

“The process starts all over. We have told them that last year’s championship is over,” Saulsberry said. “Your job is to start the process over and focus on the process.”

The Tigers lost 11 starters on offense and six on defense, but that isn’t as bad as it might appear. Last season the Tigers had the opportunity to play many players who gained valuable real game experience and will be leaned upon to guide the team this season. Best case scenario? No drop off; just a new guy doing it.

Running back Chris Witherspoon looks to fill the shoes of Kylan Watkins.

Running back Chris Witherspoon looks to fill the shoes of Kylan Watkins.

Chris Witherspoon, the 5’10” running back, will have big shoes to fill. With the departure of Mr. Football finalist Watkins, Witherspoon, who rushed for nearly a 1,000 yards last season, will be asked to carry the load. Vincent Guy will start the season as the quarterback.

The defense will be the heart and soul of the team. Two players have offers to play football at SEC schools, defensive back Rashad Williams (Vanderbilt) and defensive end Devon Robinson (Mississippi State).

However, the core of the defense will be the linebackers and that includes Tyler Hunter, freshman All-American Bryson Eason and newcomer Marquise Trailer.

“New guys, new faces and same results,” Saulsberry said.

The theme of last year’s team was “We Are One.” This season it’s “We Are The Haven,” meaning take care of your house.

With seven home games, if the Tigers are able to protect their house it could lead to many of their potential playoff games being played at home. The season starts on August 11 with the High School Jamboree at Whitehaven Stadium. The first game of the season will be played against the Mitchell Tigers on August 18 at 7 p.m.