South Pittsburg’s return to being physical up front will be key to season

Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / South Pittsburg's Kamden Wellington (15) returns at quarterback for the Pirates in his senior season.

SOUTH PITTSBURG PIRATES

Head coach: Wes Stone (19-5 here and overall)

Returning starters: 6 offensive; 8 defensive

Last year's record: 9-3, lost in TSSAA Class 1A second round

Key players: Kamden Wellington (5-11, 195) Sr. QB, Racash Kelly (5-9, 155) Sr. ATH/DB, AJ Wallace (6-3, 185) WR/DB, Omar Slatton (5-9, 270) Sr. OL, Jamarion Farrior (6-0, 200) Sr. TE/LB, Logan Hargis (6-1, 175) Sr. LB, Cameron Grider (6-0, 200) Sr. OL/DL, Ronye Tipton (5-6, 185) Sr. DL, Jacob Bivens (6-1, 185) Sr. WR/LB, Martavious Collins (6-4, 255) Sr. TE/DE, Jace Stone (6-0, 155) Jr. WR, Jamychal Buckner (5-10, 175) So. RB, Kadyn Pace (6-0, 165) So. CB, J.R. Hardrick (6-6, 200) So. DE.

Season outlook: The sting of the program's earliest playoff exit in eight years has resonated throughout the offseason.

After reaching the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl in consecutive years -- with the Pirates winning the program's sixth state title in 2021, Stone's first season as head coach -- the team's Achilles' heel in 2022 was a lack of size and strength up front.

Despite cruising to their seventh region title in eight years -- they outscored league foes by an average of 53-12 -- the Pirates' shortcoming showed in regular-season losses to Chattanooga Christian and North Carolina's Murphy and was frustratingly obvious in the playoff loss to Gordonsville, which won 14-7 after holding South Pittsburg to less than 50 yards on the ground.

A year later, the line has shown significant progress in the weight room. There is also an abundance of speed at the skill positions as most of the offensive production returns, including all-state selection Wellington, who threw for 2,162 yards, ran for 502 and totaled 38 touchdowns, and Kelly, who is the team's most versatile player. Farrior also earned all-state recognition and is the team's leading returning tackler.

Also back is Hargis, who won state track titles in both the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles this past spring and can cover plenty of ground from sideline to sideline. The team got a big boost this summer from the transfers of Wallace, who has college offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Mississippi State and Virginia Tech, and Collins, who is committed to Auburn and is a solid blocker as well as a good target.

"We've worked extremely hard with the linemen during the offseason," Stone said. "We put a lot of emphasis on the power run game because we just couldn't do that last year, and that's not us.

"We feel good about our defense, and we know we can rely on our ability to throw the ball, but toughness is the key to this season."

Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].