Head coach: Rocky Stephenson (13-7 here and overall)
Returning starters: 7 offensive; 7 defensive
Last year's record: 9-3, lost in TSSAA Class 1A second round
Key players: Brandon Easterly (6-4, 205) Jr. QB/RB/LB, Bennett McDougal (6-2, 195) Jr. QB/WR/DB, Therion Mordecai (6-0, 185) Sr. ATH/DB, Wyatt Davis (5-9, 170) Jr. RB/LB, Daniel Ashworth (6-2, 275) Sr. OL/DL, Zac Rollins (6-1, 215) Sr. OL/LB, Garrett Miller (6-2, 190) Jr. TE/LB, Ryan Scott (6-3, 190) Jr. WR.
Season outlook: The Tigers' rebuilding project is nearly complete. In his second season as head coach, Stephenson helped the program post nine wins and reach the second round of the playoffs last fall. That came after the team had gone 4-18 in the two years prior to his arrival, and now the Tigers have the experience and talent to make a deep postseason run.
"We've got good experience on both sides, and all our guys gained a ton of confidence by winning nine games and moving on in the playoffs last year," Stephenson said. "But the good thing about having an older group is they're not satisfied with that. They know we can compete for it all."
Before a knee injury cut his playing time short midway through the season, Easterly had rushed for more than 500 yards. His return, as well as McDougal's, gives Whitwell a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks who are also versatile enough to play any other skill position. Davis and Mordecai can also play any skill position needed, while Ashworth and Rollins lead what should be a stout offensive front.
The Tigers also return the majority of starters from a defense that allowed an average of just eight points in their nine wins.
A Sept. 15 region matchup with Sale Creek could help determine which team gets to host a first-round playoff game, and Whitwell ends the regular season at South Pittsburg in a game that could decide the region title.
"We just need to minimize mistakes and get better each week to build more confidence for the run of games we'll have late in the season," Stephenson said. "Hopefully we can utilize our entire roster, because being able to count on at least 25 or so of our 40 players will be a huge boost in giving us the depth we need to keep guys fresh and avoid the injuries that can add up during the season.
"This is a hard-working group that has really bonded well together and is football smart. They've got a lot of the qualities you need to have to be a really strong team."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].