Smyrna has reached the playoffs every year since joining Region 5- 6A, but the Bulldogs have been stymied by Independence in the first round the past two seasons.
One other obstacle they have not been able to surmount is region foe and state power Cane Ridge.
“Cane Ridge is one we haven’t been able to get over the hump on,” Smyrna coach Matt Williams said. “Coach (Eddie) Woods always does an outstanding job over there. They killed us two years ago. We did a little better last year but haven’t gotten over that hump yet. Our kids will have to work hard and stay with the process.”
Williams also looks for tough competition throughout the rest of the region as well.
“Stewarts Creek is much improved," he said. “They’ve got a really good group of seniors over there and I know they are real excited about what they’re doing. I’m sure La Vergne will be better and McGavock is always tough. Antioch and Overton, you never know, and they can always be good.”
With a number of holes to fill in the lineup the Bulldogs, however, aren’t focused on the big picture as much as the day to day.
“Our real focus is on the opener (East Nashville),” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of new pieces and need to do this one game at a time. We are returning a lot up front but replacing a lot elsewhere, so right now we just need to stay with the process and get better every day.”
Smyrna’s two biggest tasks this season may be replacing two-year starting quarterback Alex Bannister and four-year starting RB/DB/KR Blake Watkins.
“We’ve got Mikel Hartfield at tailback but definitely have to find an athlete to step up in the return game,” Williams said. “Probably our biggest question is replacing Alex Bannister at quarterback. Tavien Tigg is who we went with in our 7-on-7s, and we’ve got a freshman, Landon Miller. Also Jeremiah Bailey can get back and take some snaps if he needs to.”
Other than at quarterback the offensive philosophy is simple: run the football and stay ahead of the chains.
“Returning four out of five starters on the offensive line we are going to have to be able to run the football,” Williams said. “Joseph Rojas at right tackle, Keller Williams at center, and Ethan Burgeson and Lane Crips back at the guards. At left tackle we are looking at Devin Woods right now, and he played a lot for us last year. Also, Matthew Keener is vying for time there, so we’ve got six lineman we feel really good about. That’s the strength of our team.
“We are going to have to be able to run and be sufficient at throwing when we need to in the play-action. We have to stay ahead of the chains. If we get behind the chains a lot this year we are going to struggle and our kids know that. We need to be in third-and-1, third-and-2 consistently and not third-and-8.”
With that much experience returning on the line and the 225-pound Hartfield running behind them, the run game should definitely anchor the Bulldogs this year.
With the departure of such standouts as Watkins, Gavin Howell, Marlon Alexander and Josh Bailey, the Bulldogs have big shoes to fill defensively. However much like on offense, the line will be the strength of the defense as well, especially with the return of Texas A&M defensive end commitment Dallas Walker.
“If our kids play like they’re capable we should have one of the better D-lines,” Williams said. “With that we have to be able to stop the run and force people to throw it and be able to hold up on the back end when they do throw it. We just have to make people earn what they get against us.”
Rojas, Walker and Zion Rucker will anchor the defensive line.
“We are going to have a lot of new faces, especially in the secondary and at linebacker,” Williams said. Those kids are going to have to show their development and progression and bend but not break.”
Looking to step in at the linebacker position left by Howell will be Douglas Belcher, Zereoue ‘Z’ Johnson, Skyler Cagle and Daniel Laquart.
Coach Williams cites "the big play" as a weakness from last season they hope to avoid this year.
“We can’t have busts in the secondary or give up the big run," he said. "Last year we had some lapses that made some games closer than they should have been and in other games got us beat. That’s going to be our biggest thing this year.”
2018 Record: 7-4
Head Coach: Matt Williams
Assistant Coaches: Steve Williams (Off Coor/QBs), Steve Carson (RBs), Mark Williams (WRs), Justin Morton (TEs), Ben Kuhn (OL), Jason Tigg (asst OL)
Gabe Villarreal (Def Coor/LBs), Kirk Embry (Sp Teams/DEs), Jason Pitts (DTs), Steve Williams (DBs), Deon Meadows (OLBs),
JV- Bret Arkelian, Pernell Whittaker
Players to Watch: Dallas Walker (DT/TE, Sr.); Mikel Hartfield (RB/DE, Sr.);Joseph Rojas (OL/NT, Sr.)
8/23: at East Nashville
9/6: at Overton
9/27: at Antioch
10/4: Cane Ridge
10/18: at Ravenwood
10/25: at La Vergne
11/1: Stewarts Creek