CLEVELAND BLUE RAIDERS
Head coach: Chandler Tygard (first year here; 25-22 overall)
Returning starters: 7 offensive; 7 defensive
Last year's record: 6-4, did not qualify for TSSAA Class 6A playoffs
Key players: L.J. Adams (6-3, 180) Sr. QB/WR, Aaron Smith (6-0, 170) Sr. WR/CB, Neil Armstrong (6-5, 250) Sr. OT, Mycah Jordan (5-8, 175) Sr. WR/DB, Lucas Szymborski (6-2, 200) Jr. TE/LB, A.J. Westfield (6-3, 270) So. TE/DL, Cam Lockerby (5-9, 210) Sr. LB, Bryan Beard (6-1, 180) Sr. RB/DB, Isaiah Davis (5-10, 170) Jr. RB/DB, Brayden Carroll (6-3, 185) So. WR/DB, Cash Bandy (6-3, 180) Jr. QB.
Season outlook: The program's rebuilding project kicked into high gear during the offseason. Literally.
By hiring Tygard to take over, Cleveland — which has won seven games or less 17 times in the past 25 years — is assured of running one of the quickest-tempo offenses in the state. Blue Raiders supporters are hoping the turnaround is also quick.
In two seasons as head coach at Murfreesboro's Blackman, Tygard led a program that had won just four games the year before his arrival to a 10-win season and the Class 6A quarterfinals last year before falling to eventual state champ Oakland.
The Blaze also averaged 38.1 points per game last fall, including six performances of 40-plus points, and Tygard said to expect Cleveland to average snapping the ball for a new play every 10 to 13 seconds. That quick pace will definitely put pressure on opposing defenses, as will the high number of experienced players returning and the upgrade in overall athleticism at the skill positions.
When Bandy transferred in from Notre Dame, it allowed Adams to be moved to receiver, his more natural position. The team's most versatile and athletic player, Adams will likely still see some action at quarterback.
The defense will be anchored by Lockerby, who had more than 100 tackles last year, and sophomore A.J. Westfield, who has shown flashes of being unblockable at times during the preseason.
"Our starting 11 on both sides can play," said Tygard, whose offenses set five school records during his two seasons as head coach at Alabama's North Jackson. "We're not nearly as deep as we need to be at our level, but I have been impressed with how quickly the kids have bought into a new philosophy.
"These kids haven't been used to winning here for a while, so changing that mentality is the biggest hurdle. That is all part of the process of getting where we want to be."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].