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Simmons Says - Fact and fiction from Pioneer preseason

Senior Nate Elrod looks like he'll control the Pioneer offense this fall (Painted Barn Media)

After four-plus quarters of preseason scrimmage work for Warren County, I had a good feeling. The Pioneers stood toe-to-toe with South Pitt and Tullahoma, both state champs last year, and came out on top by a combined score of 31-27. Maybe it wasn’t going to be 2020 all over again, but it felt like a repeat of last year was absolutely out of the question.

Then, just as the Pioneers got within a week of kickoff, I got another feeling – and it wasn’t nearly as good. Warren County went to Sequatchie County, the same place where the 2021 season truly felt like it started to derail, and laid an egg. The Pioneers couldn’t get off the field again against Rhea County, falling 3-0, then had a dropped extra-point snap turn into a two-point conversion that allowed Grundy County to win 8-7.

In those moments, especially when bizarre plays seem to always bite the Pioneers, it’s hard to suppress the “Same ole Warren County,’ mentality. I thought Matt Turner had taken that out for good, but I’m sure the doom-and-gloomers will come out of the woodworks over the next few days, including (for an instant) me.

I know people like to talk about the old days and probably think I’m still a relative newbie when it comes to Pioneer football, but this will be the 13th season I’ve covered at Nunley Stadium. Add in the four years I spent watching Warren County in high school (I was at every home game and some of the away ones too) and I’ve experienced 17 years of Pioneer football up close. Considering this is Squad 54, the math says I’ll have witnessed over 31 percent of the seasons – nearly 1/3. I’m no Jay Walker, but I’m starting to pile up games.

The only reason to bring that up is to contextualize how many gut feelings I’ve had about the Pioneers over the years. Usually, they’re right more than they’re wrong. Sadly, that’s the case when I think Warren County may not be good (it wasn’t nearly as sad when I was convinced the 2020 team was going to break the four-decade losing streak and they did, empathically).

Those gut instincts usually kick in during preseason, although I have had premonitions about teams that come in the spring (or date back to the previous season when I can start projecting the returning players). This fall was rare – I’ve bounced back and forth from optimism and pessimism, not knowing exactly where I’ll land by Aug. 19 in Smithville. I think, at this point, the further I get away from the Sequatchie County Jamboree, the more I’ll remember how well the Pioneers performed in their first two tests.

The optimist in me wants to think Friday was an aberration – chalked up to it being the first time the team played on the road, playing for the third time in eight days and using bland scheming to keep any wrinkles off the scouting report for next week. Also, what happens if Grundy County just bobbles the snap and ends up just laying on it? Would I be upset as much if the Pioneers came out of Friday with a 7-6 win and 3-0 loss?

The answer: Probably not.

The pessimist is whispering in my ear that Warren County opens its season with four straight road games, so struggling away from Nunley Stadium can’t become a theme. Also, it’s weird to regress in the third workout – usually teams making their biggest jumps from Game 1 to 2, then another pretty good leap for Game 3. That didn’t happen for Warren County Friday.

Still, I don’t think there’s any certainty to what will happen with Warren County this fall, other than the fact people will pack Nunley Stadium and coach Turner will always have his team playing hard. Other than that, here’s some Facts and Fictions I’m taking from preseason:

FACT: The Pioneer defense must find a way to get off the field quicker.

If you’re just now waking up from South Pitt’s methodical first drive putting you to sleep last Friday, I’m not surprised. To be charitable, watching the Pioneer defense try to stop the Pirates over a snap of 21 minutes got boring. If you’re being critical, you’d say it was demoralizing.

That hasn’t been a one-and-done deal either. After South Pittsburg executed a 21-play TD drive last week, Tullahoma followed with TD drives of seven and nine plays Tuesday. The second, an up-tempo sprint out of halftime, had the Pioneers on their heels the whole time.

Fast forward to Friday and there was Rhea County going on another march and eating up eight minutes of clock. Warren County did manage to hold up at the end, forcing the Eagles to settle for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Bending and not breaking has been a hallmark of the Pioneer defense the last three years, but the best unit (2020) was lights out on third downs as well. Last year’s team gave up way too many lengthy drives and this year’s stoppers are following in familiar footsteps.

I don’t know if the Pioneers can opt for a feast-or-famine approach where it pins its ears back and tries to cause havoc in the backfield and expose its secondary to 1-on-1 situations, but they may have to mix in a few more tries. Opposing offenses landing body blows, especially early, is debilitating because A) it usually puts Warren County in catch-up mode on the scoreboard and B) all the team’s offensive players are getting exhausted before they can ever get in attack mode.

There’s one thing for sure: Warren County needs to be winning coin tosses and putting its offense on the field right now. If it doesn’t, other teams may take the whole first quarter wearing out the Pioneers.

Fiction: Losing Friday is a sign of bad things to come

I get it – it was Grundy County. There are a few teams that will always panic fans if they beat Warren County and the Yellow Jackets are one of them. All the other small schools surrounding the area (like Cannon County and Van Buren County) have the same way of spooking fans if the Pioneers are ever behind on the scoreboard.

The rub is this: I think the Pioneers win that game going away if it goes four quarters. Warren County moved the ball pretty effectively on two separate occasions, only to stall out at midfield once and fumble at the goal line on the other. Grundy, on the other hand, did absolutely nothing on its first three drives (two three-and-outs and a Pick 6).

If Warren County had played a full game against Grundy County Friday and won by a couple TDs, people would probably be ready to pick a blowout over next week in DeKalb County (ironically, one of the other surrounding counties that used to panic fans when they beat WC – until they started doing it routinely). Now, people are full of skepticism going to Smithville.

Relax! Sure, the Pioneers could go to Smithville and lose next week, but that won’t be because of what happened in Sequatchie County. DeKalb County is a good team and a perfect test for Warren County in Week 1 --- just enjoy the ride right now.

Jaythan Pleasant continues to get free and churn up yards this preseason (Painted Barn Media)

Fact: The Pioneer offense can be lethal

In their first 4+ quarters of action this fall, the Pioneers had nine total drives (throwing out a 2-play drive in the final 30 seconds of the first half against Tullahoma where the Pioneers took a sack and then ran out the clock). During that period, the Pioneers scored four TDs and kicked a field goal, had another drive that resulted in a missed field goal, punted twice and failed by a foot on a fourth-down try.

It may be a tad optimistic to think that the Pioneers average nine drives per game this fall, but it’s not out of the question. If they do, I think most fans would be ecstatic if they could average the combined efforts against Tullahoma and South Pittsburg: 31 points, 476 yards of offense, two long TD passes.

Friday showed that the offense can hit the skids quick if players aren’t on the same page or the Pioneers put the ball on the ground, but the first two scrimmages also showed the offense can be lethal and produce a number of big plays.

Braylon Grayson is an obvious weapon, both as a receiver and runner. Jaythan Pleasant’s speed still seems to catch other teams off guard, while Dawson Haley is packing a punch on the ground (8 carries for 72 yards and a TD). Nate Elrod is hitting big plays and can move the chains with his feet. Alex van Vuuren is a weapon on the outside, hauling in 30-plus yard receptions in both scrimmages he played in this fall.

The Pioneers can – and should – get better this fall. Their offensive line is still a work in progress that will need Dayton Jernigan to be a bulldozer (wherever he ends up). Limiting negative plays and penalties will be critical so the team can always be in convertible down-and-distances late.

Fiction: Next Friday will be a blowout

I couldn’t imagine any coach, player or fan could honestly believe next week is going to be a domination by either side. DeKalb County may have won 28-0 last year, but I don’t think this is the same Warren County team that will be anemic offensively and dominated on the ground defensively (especially with Jernigan now available to play).

Right now, I’m thinking this could be a game that comes down to kickers. A last-second field goal or a missed PAT could be the difference between good teams --- I’m expecting that kind of nailbiter in Smithville.

Fact: The Pioneers have to be more mindful of field position

Coach Turner has always had a phenomenal feel for when to go into ultra-aggressive mode or play it cool on Friday nights. He rolled the dice a couple times this week and both were detrimental to his defense.

On Tuesday, the Pioneers tried an onside kick against Tullahoma that the Wildcats recovered. With a short field, Tullahoma was able to score and get back some momentum. I talked to him this week and it was a miscommunication on the play that he owned and I trust it won’t happen again.

On Friday, the Pioneers went for it on fourth down against Grundy County at the Yellow Jacket 42. Had it been a short-yardage situation, I could understand it, but it was fourth-and-9. That’s not a down-and-distance that lends itself favorably to the Pioneer playbook.

I think, in a true game, Turner would’ve called for the punt and made the opponent drive a greater distance for a potential game-tying TD with just a minute to go. Friday was just about getting a sense of what his offense would do in a pressure situation (and find out his defense’s capabilities in late-game management). Now with more information to process, Turner – a great sideline tactician – will make sure to protect his team on Friday nights.

Fiction: This is it for the Pioneers so they better bundle up wins

It’s definitely a big senior class that has been priming itself to go out with a bang, but I’m getting more optimistic about the future too. Warren County is always going to ebb and flow until it can consistently get 25-30 players out per class each year, but there is some help on the way soon.

Pleasant and van Vuuren are both juniors who can piece together a functional offense next year, while Creed Adams is a splendid sophomore just scratching the surface of his potential. Freshmen Isaiah Robledo and Jr Mares are already battling for varsity time, while eighth grader Lex Winfree still looks like a man amongst boys most nights for WCMS.

Enjoy this year, because I think it could end up being special. But don’t assume it’s the last ride for Turner or the Pioneers. It could be another major building block to more sustained success for Warren County.

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