By TREY WILLIAMS
Winning is becoming old hat for 25-year-old rookie David Crockett head coach Hayden Chandley.
The Pioneers have reached 55 two straight games to turn the big 4-0 for the first time since they began 5-0 in the program’s first season in 1971.
Junior quarterback Cade Larkins threw five touchdown passes and junior receiver Donta Hackler had two TD receptions and returned an interception for a score in the Pioneers’ 55-28 dismantling of Gibbs on Friday in Jonesborough. That came on the heels of a 55-0 rout of upstart Volunteer.
“If we’ve got our kids ready to play and prepared,” Chandley said, “I feel good about our chances most nights we line up.”
Larkins, working well with former Crockett quarterback Ryan Burger, is 64-of-103 passing for 1,073 yards, 14 TDs and two interceptions. Chandley said he sees a “night-and-day difference” in Larkins since a 21-7 win against Seymour in the season opener.
Hackler leads Crockett with 21 catches for 337 yards and six TDs. Many of his catches are of the crowd-pleasing variety.
“I’ll tell ya, there’s not many guys the good Lord built 6-4, 205 pounds and can jump and run like Donta can,” Chandley said. “We’re very blessed to have him on our side. I tell people all the time, ‘I’m just glad he’s on our side and I’m not having to line up across from him and figure out how we’re gonna cover him.’”
Despite having two other dangerous receivers in John Kollie (16 catches, 308 yards, three TDs) and Micah Robinson (16-299-3), the Pioneers are starting to see Hackler get double-teamed more and more. Volunteer did some of it, and Gibbs even more. Chandley sees a pick-your-poison conundrum for opponents.
“We’ve got two pretty good ones,” Chandley said, “on the other side of the formation too that can go get it in Micah and John.”
Indeed, Kollie caught an 81-yard TD and Robinson had a 21-yard score against Gibbs. Mark Siedler – the Pioneers’ leading tackler (35.5) – also caught a TD pass against Gibbs, which made it a game for a half.
“We got down there in the first half and we just kept battling,” Chandley said. “It was good to see our kids come back and respond how they did … to a little bit of a adversity. I know we scored three touchdowns in the last four minutes of the first half, which was huge. And they got the ball to start the second half and we were able to get a turnover on downs and march right down and score. That was a big answer to their big second quarter.”
Hackler’s pick-six wasn’t the Pioneers’ lone defensive score. J.R. Giles returned a fumble 31 yards for a Crockett touchdown.
“We gave up 28 points, which is a lot more than we’re used to giving up,” Chandley said. “But you’ve also gotta think the defense scored 14 points on their own. So that was huge for us.”
Adrian Boles, a 6-7, 240-pound senior lineman, left the Gibbs game with a knee injury. Chandley is hopeful that it’s only an MCL, and that Boles could return for the Cherokee game on Oct. 5 after a bye week.
Gabe Hendricks, Blaine Greer and Tyler Estep, Chandley says, have reeled in much slack left by Boles’ absence. They’ve helped a ground game that’s led to 54 carries for 313 yards and four TDs for junior Ronquille Joyner and 21 carries for 131 yards for sophomore Prince Kollie.
“Up front we’re doing a good job getting the right protection and opening up some holes for Ronquille and Prince,” Chandley said. “We’ve kind of hit our stride. So hopefully we can keep things rolling and keep moving forward with the offense.”
The Pioneers will need to hit on all cylinders Friday in Newport. Cocke County (3-0) is also unbeaten and has an impressive pitch-and-catch tandem in quarterback Jarren Ensley and receiver Carson Nichols. The Fighting Cocks are coached by Caleb Slover, a record-setting quarterback at Tusculum College.
“He (Ensley) is definitely a talented quarterback,” Chandley said. “When they give him time to throw he surveys the field well and he reads defenses extremely well. We’ll have to do a good job of getting pressure with three or four (pass rushers). You’ve gotta mix up your looks with him. When you blitz you can’t always show it. He’s a heady kid and coach (Caleb) Slover does a good job with him, having him and his team prepared.
“And they’ve got a very solid receiver in the Nichols kid. I would say that he is probably the fastest kid that we would’ve played thus far and maybe the fastest kid we’ll play all year. We’ll definitely have to keep an eye on him and know where he’s at at all times.”