LINEVILLE — Not much has changed for Clay Central, even though the Volunteers have moved up from Class 4A to 5A this season.
The third-year program is expected to compete for a region championship.
However, if the Volunteers manage to take the 5A, Region 3 title, they’ll do it by getting past a bunch of unfamiliar foes.
“Going into 5A, we figured that’s where we’d be, and it puts us in a region where we’re in a seven-team region so that gives us only six regions games,” Clay Central head coach Kris Herron said. “In the years past, some of the coaches have had experience against some of these teams, but none of us do.
“We don’t know much about them, but you can look at it in reverse and that they don’t know much about us either.”
The Volunteers, who are a combination of old Clay County and Lineville high schools, have continued the success of those two programs. They’ve made the playoffs the last two years, including the quarterfinals in 2013.
Heading into this fall, the Vols will also remain a defense-first squad, despite returning only four starters.
“That’s where we’ll start. Everything we do starts with defense,” Herron said. “Our first practice will be a defensive practice. That’s where we try to put our emphasis every day. If the other team doesn’t score or doesn’t score much then we’ve got a chance. Offensively, execution sometimes isn’t there, but with defense it’s about being mentally sharp, lining up correctly and playing with great effort. Those are things that you can control from the defensive side of the ball.”
The defense held opponents to 14 points or less in 10 of 13 games a year ago. Of the four starters returning, linebacker Payton Reynolds will lead the way for the Vols.
“As long as we have coach Herron here then we’ll always be good on defense because we put it first,” Reynolds said. “We always say we need to have good effort, and if you have good effort on defense then it’ll be a good defense.”
And while Reynolds' biggest role this year will come on the defensive side of the ball, he’ll also play offense at times, splitting time between tight end and quarterback.
“We lost Anthony Wood last year, so we’ve got some new guys this year. It’ll probably be J.T. Burns and Jaylon Lyles doing some wildcat quarterback, but Payton has history in his junior high days of playing quarterback,” Herron said. “He does some things at quarterback pretty well. There will probably be a package with him playing quarterback and he plays some tight end, too, but we try to not use him so much over there because defensively he’s our leader on the front.”
Clay Central’s biggest offensive threat will likely come from Lyles, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season, becoming the first in school history to do so.
“He’ll be a big part of our offense,” Herron said. “Sometimes from quarterback to back, but, again, we talked to Jaylon and some other guys, and other guys are going to have to step up because other teams are going to be looking for Jaylon because of the success he had last year.”
Lyles and Reynolds both showed confidence in Clay Central’s chances this year against 5A, Region 3 and a difficult non-region schedule, as well.
“The guys are excited about it, but I think the coaches are a little nervous about it,” Herron said. “The higher you go in class the more depth becomes an issue more. Hopefully as we start the year, especially on the fronts, we’ll have guys that will just have to go one way.
“But our goal is still the same and it always will be because of the history that’s here and the way football is played here.”
Brandon Miller is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.