The Titans were just one win away from the state semifinals in 2017, but even after losing a handful of impact seniors on both sides of the ball, their mission remains the same, win.
The Titans lost some of their best play makers last year.
Wide receiver and all-state defensive back Trevon Faulkner, quarterback and all-state punter Gunnar Gillis, wide receiver Aaron Johnson and running back Jackson Lewis were just some of the seniors lost from last season that made plays on the offensive side of the ball for the Titans. Head Coach David Buchanan has the tough task of replacing those players, but that is what high school football is all about, coaching and developing a new crop of talent year in and year out.
“There are certain times and players you don’t ever really think about replacing. You just try to build your program to be the best it can. You hope every year that you can graduate good players, and then you hope your program continues to grow,” said Buchanan. “Over the time period, the improvement of the program hopefully makes up for a lot of that. I think we have a lot of guys that are going to develop into really good football players this season.”
Buchanan said two seniors on this year’s roster have really stepped up and taken on a leadership role for the younger guys.
“Jamason (Sherrow) and Blake (Russell) are trying to provide that leadership for us in that part of the game. They are a little more vocal than they have been and they’re trying to fill that void for us,” he said. “I think they’re still evolving as leaders, but for the most part, they’ve done a good job in that department.”
Along with Sherrow and Russell, the Titans have seven other seniors on the roster: Jon Jon Logue, M.J. Johnson, Mason Darland, Easton Cocanaugher, Sam Warren, Toshi Smith and Andres Aaroe.
Buchanan has liked what he’s seen in practice so far, but there is always room for improvement.
“Overall, the trajectory is good for us, but we still to be more consistent in all areas. There is always room for improvement in this game,” said Buchanan.
Listed below is the coaching staff for the Titans, separated by their area of expertise:
Donald Wayne Smith – assistant head coach, defensive back/running backs coach.
Brian Rowland – defensive coordinator, linebackers and tight ends coach.
Charlie Cox – offensive/defensive line coach.
Josh Painter – special teams coordinator, outside linebackers and wide receivers coach.
Graham Heasley – quarterback and defensive ends coach.
Mark Huffman – kicking coach.
William Harris – head freshmen/JV coach.
Brian Sims – assisant freshman/JV coach.
We broke down different positions on the field and what it’s looking like for the Titans on both sides of the ball.
Replacing Gillis is a tough task. He was a big and strong kid who was able to avoid the rush and make tough throws down the field. He threw for over 2,500 yards and tossed 32 touchdowns. What better way to replace a player like that with an athlete who can be used all over the field? Junior Kaelin Drakeford is tasked with playing the most important position on the football field. Drakeford played wide receiver and defensive back last season and steps into a bigger role in 2018. He is listed as an athlete on the depth chart, and deservedly so. He is big (6’4), strong and quick. Those are three great strengths for the position.
“The two things that I think that have separated him at that position is that he’s throwing the ball much better and he has a really good grasp of our offense,” said Buchanan. “We’re going to go into the season with him as our starting quarterback, but even as our quarterback, we can be creative because he can do a lot of things on the field.”
Drakeford’s play-making ability will be big for the Titans. He can tuck the ball in and take off if he is being rushed and can throw on the run. Expect big things from Drakeford in 2018 under center.
The Titans will have a crowded backfield, but Buchanan hopes to utilize every player he has in the fullback and running back positions. Cocanaugher will start at fullback and expect Sherrow to step into that role as well. Both Cocanaugher and Sherrow are big bruisers and will be vital in short yardage situations. Juniors Malachi Yulee and Bryson Yeast, along with freshman Brayden Dunn, will see time at the tailback position. Yulee and Yeast will combine their speed and power to advance the ball. Dunn, only being a freshman, still has a lot growing to do, but Buchanan said he will see playing time. He is a very quick runner and will be a player to watch this season.
“Tailback will be by committee with Malachi, Bryson and Brayden. All three of our tailbacks are physically very strong so that will help us a lot,” said Buchanan.
Replacing Jackson Lewis will be tough because he had over 1,100 yards rushing and over 600 yards receiving. There likely won’t be that type of impact player in the backfield for Mercer because they have multiple players who are capable of causing damage to opposing defenses.
“I think we’re making really good progress up front. I do think we’re going to be better on both sides of the ball on the line,” said Buchanan.
Sophomore Richie Macias will start at center, junior Isaiah Morris-Kirkpatrick will be the starting right guard, sophomore Jesus Garcia will step into a new varsity role as right tackle. Russell will return for his senior season at left guard and junior Noah Sewell will also be returning as left tackle.
The guys lined up outside the pocket are the guys that score touchdown sand make plays down the field, but they wouldn’t be able to do that without the offensive line. The team goes as far as the line will take them. Buchanan knows they have improved up front offensively and know said guys are capable of protecting the quarterback.
The defensive line will also have a returning core of players. Junior Darrian Baker (6’4, 215 lbs.), is one of the biggest kids on the team and will start at one of the defensive tackle positions. His size and quickness on the line will wreak havoc on opposing offensive guards and tackles. Baker will be a player to watch this season. Senior Sam Warren returns as the other defensive tackle. Warren has good size as well (6’0, 255 lbs.), and can push back the line with his strength and clog up the back field. The defensive end positions will be taken up by Cocanaugher and Morris-Kirkpatrick. The defensive ends are usually the faster guys on the line and can use their speed to get past the tackles on the edge. Freshman Brent McKitric, or simply Big Mack, will also get time on the offensive and defensive line.
“He has adapted really well in what we do,” said Buchanan.
Wide receivers/Defensive backs
The Titans had one of the most explosive receiving corps in Class 4A football last season with Faulkner, Jackson Lewis and Aaron Johnson. They combined for over 2,200 yards and 29 touchdowns. It might be nearly impossible to replace them, but the Titans have a group of talented receivers coming back in 2018.
“I’m not going to put on anybody that one guy to replace Trevon. I look at it as the entire unit has to grow and improve,” said Buchanan. “I do think as a unit, we can be better at that position this season, and that’s what we’re working toward. I think we’re making good progress and I think Jamisen (Lewis) coming out helps make that happen.”
Senior Jon Jon Logue, along with juniors Jamisen Lewis, Darland, Lane Horn and Dillon Warren will line up at wide reciever for Mercer County. Logue (6’2) is the biggest wide receiver on the squad and hopes to utilize his height to jump up and catch passes. Warren and Horn both have experience at the position from last season, and hope to become play makers after the catch. One of the newcomers on the team is the younger brother of Jackson Lewis, Jamisen. He is built like Jackson and Buchanan says they have very similar styles of play.
“I see a lot of similarities between them. They are both very good in the middle of the field, very good in space and have very good hands,” he said.
Lewis, Horn, Logue, Darland and Warren will also be defensive backs for the Titans. Playing both sides of the ball can be tough and can cause fatigue, but that is the norm in high school football. Those five players playing the wide receiver position can really help themselves on the other side of the ball. Seeing tendencies of opposing cornerbacks defend them on offense will be a big boost.
Buchanan said he has seen a lot of growth in Darland and Horn.
“He’s (Darland) improved dramatically. Last year, he was a junior varsity player. This year, he’s really fighting to be a starter. He’s shown a lot of growth as well as Lane (Horn). I think those guys are improving and I think we’re developing some players in that area.”
Sophomore Landon McGinnis will be the tight end.
“Landon’s a very athletic tight end for us. He’s also our backup quarterback, but he is athletic and had a big catch last week on a drag route in our team scrimmage,” said Buchanan. “I think with Landon and the wide receivers that we have, we can be better as a unit and that’s what we’re constantly working towards.”
McGinnis will also be taking care of kick-offs this season, a role he stepped into late last year.
Cocanaugher will start the season punting, but Drakeford and McGinnis can both step into that role.
Sophomores Christina McClain and Noah Davis will be kicking the PATs this season.
Yulee, Cocanaugher, Sherrow and Yeast will be the linebackers for Mercer. Just like how they play in the backfield, they will use their physicality to help out the line by clogging the pocket. All of them are physical rushers and aren’t afraid of lining up against players bigger than they are. That’s what you need out of your linebackers. It’s a very physical position, and those five will be rotating in and out, trying to be the voices on defense.
Buchanan hopes that a lot of the guys returning this season will remember the heartbreaking loss to Collins in the regional final last season.
“That was something we talked a lot about in the offseason. Right now, we’re in the mode of one day at a time and one game at a time, but we talked about that a lot and the message was simple. What’s happened here the last three years we’re proud of and it’s good, but it’s time to move forward, and that’s where we are. I think we have moved forward in the previous three seasons, but we need to take another step. Ultimately, the goal is to win state.”
The Titans open up their season in less than two weeks against the John Hardin Bulldogs. Buchanan has been scouting them and says they will be a tough match up.
“They are a well-coached team and they are athletic. They’ve got a strong tradition. They’ve been good for a long time. It’s going to be a tough opener for us, but it’s going to be a challenge that we need.”
Mercer County’s second game will also be a big challenge.
Louisville-Wagner, coached by one of Buchanan’s former players at Mason County, Jordan Johnson, will be a very tough match up for the Titans in week two.
“He’s done a really good job with his kids. They play really hard for Jordan,” he said.
Johnson was a freshman at Mason County in Buchanan’s first year coaching there, starting on the defensive line.
Buchanan is really proud of the amount of youth on his team.
“We have 22 freshmen. Numbers for football are dropping across the state. I’m really pleased with the job Coach Painter, Coach Harris and Coach Sims have done with our freshmen in the weight room,” he said. “The future is very bright for us.”
He also talked about the numbers for football and why they are decreasing.
“Concussions, heat and there are a lot more options these days that are easier than football,” said Buchanan. “Both my sons played, and I thought they were safer and better off being at football practice every day than they would be if they were out doing something else. I think the life lessons, the way players are challenged mentally and physically, I don’t see them getting that anywhere else.”
Buchanan coached his oldest son, John Combs, at Mason County and now as the opportunity to coach his youngest son, Trosper, at Mercer.
“As a dad, playing football has been one of the best things to help my sons and I think they would be very different people without the game of football in their life. What I’ve noticed for them is in other areas of life seem very simple and easy to them because they’ve had to navigate the stress and demands of football,” he said. “I just wanted to have a program here where Trosper would have a great experience playing football like John Combs did at Mason County. I’m really thankful as a dad to have the quality assistant coaches that we have and a community that loves football. My son gets to be a part of that program. I think he is very fortunate to get to play at Mercer County. As a dad, that’s what I’m thankful for.”
The Titans open up their season on Saturday, Aug. 18, when they host John Hardin for the Little Caesar’s Ft. Harrod Bowl at 8 p.m.
Football season is here folks. The Titans are ready, are you?