WEST JEFFERSON — Following arguably the greatest season in school history, the Ashe County Huskies football team may look different, but still has the same goals of a playoff berth and a Mountain Valley Athletic Conference championship. As the 2019 season rolls in, head coach Brian Hampton and his staff have a team that has gone through a lot of turnover, but still has a ton of potential.
The team lost 17 seniors, including starting quarterback Luke Hudler, receiver Branson Shepherd, top cornerback Kai Christoferson and linebacker Noah Vannoy. All four starters on the defensive line and all but one starting offensive linemen went out the door with them, leaving gaps all over both sides of the ball. Hampton said guys who are now stepping up have played well in practice and scrimmages, but their lack of game experience will have to be remedied sooner, rather than later. He added that there will have to be some changes to account for the new personnel, but the players and coaching staff are confident in what they can do.
“The great thing is that we’ve got four defensive leaders coming back with Ryan (Blevins) and Gabe (Bare) in the middle and Drake (Elliott) and Keenan (Witherspoon) on the outside, so we’ve got a great nucleus there,” Hampton said. “We have to fit some pieces in the back end and the front, but I think what we’re doing defensively will get more athleticism on the field.”
To help remedy the lack of experience on the line, Hampton said the team is looking to blitz more and take advantage of Elliott’s speed and strength as he transitions to a more pass-rushing role.
Much of the offense will revolve around junior Austin Poe, who lead all 2A receivers in yards, and junior running back Timothy Peterson, who finished fourth in the division in rushing. A one-two punch of offensive firepower, defenses will have to decide whether to stop the run or pass, freeing up the other option. Hampton said Peterson, who dealt with shoulder issues at the end of the 2018 season, is not being hampered by the issues which required surgery in the off-season.
Hampton said the threat from Poe should help keep defenses on their heels, opening it up for Peterson to rumble through. Both players’ experience and talent will make things easier for junior quarterback Dawson Cox, who has taken over the starting role after Luke Hudler’s departure.
On both sides of the ball, the Huskies will also have to stay healthy, with depth being Hampton’s major concern of the season.
“The numbers are way down, about 48 total, only 21 varsity players,” Hampton said. “The quality is there, it’s the quantity that we’re lacking. I really like what we’ve got, some very good players who are working very hard, we just don’t have a lot of them.”
An example of the lack of depth is in the trenches, where the Huskies only have seven linemen. Despite this, Hampton said he won’t be relying on junior varsity players to step into roles they might not be ready for.
“That’s something I’ve talked about with other coaches on our staff,” Hampton said. “I don’t like to pull up guys just to pull up guys, if they’re not going to play significant minutes, I don’t want to pull them up.”
Hampton said the big issue is the eight-quarter rule, which limits the availability of high school players bouncing between varsity and JV football teams. He added that there will probably be multiple JV players dressing out for every game, even if they don’t play.
The Huskies kick off their season Friday, Aug. 23, at Avery, the first of four non-conference games. Also part of their conference warm-up is Watauga, Hibriten and West Caldwell, a tough road for the 2A MVAC team. However, their more forgiving conference schedule includes four out of seven games being at home.
Hampton said that ultimately the team’s goal is the same as it is every year, to win a conference championship and get to the playoffs.