Roster construction is one my favorite parts of being a sports fan. If I could pick any job, I would be as a General Manager of a pro sports franchise (probably the Spurs) because it would be awesome to scout talent, put together the right pieces and compete for a championship. It’s probably the reason why I keep running depth charts for all WCHS teams in my head and have countless conversations with coaches about “how it’ll look in 1-2 years.” I’m always looking for the right set of circumstances and players to mix together in preparation of the next special group of Pioneers and Lady Pioneers.
Matt Turner must feel like a GM sometimes – carefully planning and developing talent with hopes of establishing the Pioneers as a menace in the Midstate. His first foray into roster building was a smash hit as he assembled one of the most talented teams in Warren County football history just two years ago.
Unfortunately, you only get four years in high school (and Turner only had that group for two). Last year, the Pioneers felt the pain of graduating players who filled 20 of the team’s 24 starting positions (including kicker and punter) from the unforgettable 2020 team. The 1-8 season last fall gnawed on everybody around the program, with it taking the biggest bite out of Turner.
Wobbled from taking a big haymaker, Turner was able to get back to his feet and renew his focus over the winter. He went back to the drawing board and tried to find out how he could rekindle the magic. There were wrinkles he could add to the offense (and they worked well Monday in the scrimmage) and the Pioneers could live in the weight room to get stronger (they did), but all the workouts and X’s and O’s can’t overtake the best Jimmies and Joes.
Turner knew he had to get guys. The funny thing was they were already there, they just needed another year of growth.
Seeing Dayton Jernigan back on the field was a great sign for Pioneer football. The kid is just a 6-foot-5, 275-pound bundle of energy who couldn’t be replaced when he tore his ACL against Cookeville last season (it’s probably not a coincidence that Warren County didn’t win another game after that point). When Jernigan – likely the next Pioneer to sign a football scholarship – is flanked by Braylon Grayson, Nate Elrod, Donathan Lewis, Alex van Vuuren, Jaythan Pleasant and a host of big, burly linemen, it’s easy to picture the Pioneers doing good things this fall.
I know it’s a lot of the same guys who could only win one game last year, but you must remember the Pioneers were marred by poor health (including COVID) and tough circumstances while being bit by the injury bug most of the 2021 season. When Warren County lost its first three games due to COVID running rampant through the program, it put the team in catch-up mode and getting back to even never happened.
Feeling the fire burning on the field as the teams swapped trash talk Monday was great. At times, Warren County almost felt resigned to its fate as the wheels fell off late in the year. In their first dress rehearsal for 2022, the Pioneers were aggressive while battling with major bragging rights on the line. It got heated on a few occasions, but mostly the guys played clean while showing some grit and laying it on the line.
After a brief Blue Team celebration after a 30-28 win, it was more impressive to see how they all regrouped together, hugged out any hard feelings and started talking about how they’re ready for the moment in 2022.
“I think we have a great core and great senior class. We can go far this year,” said Grayson, a returning star and undisputed leader of the Pioneer defense.
My first real look at this group gave me some familiar butterflies at Nunley Stadium. Something special felt like it was happening again. Intersquad scrimmages are funny because for every positive (like an explosive offense), you could pull a negative (a defense that can’t stop anybody), but I think Monday’s workout was more about showing how much the Pioneers have improved individually. They’ll get their team tests in the fall early and often – Turner is looking to scrimmage some high-profile teams at Nunley Stadium in August.
I’m not going to go out on a limb and say this team will win eight straight games or be ranked in the top 10 again this fall (like 2020), but I do think they are going to thrive by carrying around a chip on their shoulder from last year’s letdown and these seniors are going to do everything they can to leave their stamp on the program. I can’t wait to see what they can do together.
Here are a few more things I took from the scrimmage:
Grayson, Elrod set tone with one big collision
Late in the first half, Warren County had its very own Clash of the Titans. Nate Elrod, last year’s QB and one of the toughest runners on the squad, tried to turn the corner to help his Red Team pick up some valuable yards. On the other side, last year’s Region 6-3A Linebacker of the Year Braylon Grayson was in hot pursuit.
They met right before going to the sidelines, with Grayson nearly laying out his senior teammate – and life-long good friend – on a massive hit. Elrod popped back up quickly and was sent by coaches to the trainer to make sure he was OK (It seemed like he was – he had a huge second half while nearly bringing the Red Team back).
While the Pioneers probably will refrain from letting Elrod take too many more big shots this summer, it was undeniable in the moment that everybody on the field was there to fight for every inch.
“Grayson was yelling ‘Go down, Go down,’ but Nate isn’t going to back down from nothing. That’s what I want – I want teams that step on the field across from Warren County to know it’s going to be a physical contest and we’re going to get after it,” said Turner. “This group is going to be fun to watch this fall. They’re strong and there’s going to be some hitting.”
Grayson, who has over 200 tackles in his Pioneer career and is generating some college looks going into the summer, confirmed he was trying to encourage Elrod to get to the ground, but ultimately he had to take care of it on his own.
“I told him ‘Go Down,’ but he didn’t go down, so I hit him. We’re competitive - Me and Nate, me and Dayton, all those guys. We go back and forth and hype each other up,” said Grayson.
Grayson, who was one the biggest talkers all night, got the ultimate victory at the end when his Blue Team defeated Elrod’s Red Team 30-28. Both could only smile while rehashing the play after the game, knowing this fall it will be an opponent catching Grayson’s wrath or getting steamrolled by Elrod on the outside.
Option spurs the offense
Coach Turner has been steadfast with his Pistol-T offense since taking over three seasons ago. Warren County will occasionally break rank with a power look at the goal line, but mostly the team is in a modified Wing-T look that can gash teams with a power running plays, jet sweeps and counters to catch defenders sleeping.
When it’s clicking, the Pioneers have had the best defensive teams in the state on their heels. There’s been some minor wrinkles thrown in every year, but the biggest step for the offense could happen in Year 4 as Turner has guys who have been in the system their whole career at the controls.
Warren County flashed an option look off its normal sets Monday, getting an added boost by confusing defenders with an extra player to monitor. There will still be things to smooth out (the Pioneers put the ball on the ground 4-5 times in slick conditions), but it popped some huge runs for Lewis, Elrod, Grayson, van Vuuren and Pleasant Monday.
Coach Turner isn’t making it tough for the team – he’s borrowing Herman Boone’s approach made famous from ‘Remember the Titans.’ The motto then was Boone’s offense ran “six plays… (it’s) like Novacaine – give it time and it always works.” Turner doesn’t even need that many looks for his Pioneers to run the option.
“We literally worked on three plays this spring … I love it. It’s hard to stop the option and our base offense. What are you going to stop – the Wing-T or the option? The option also gives us a great opportunity because we play some good defensive lineman and we’re going to read them. We put the ball on the ground a couple of times (Monday), which is to be expected this early in this offense, but we’re excited about this look,” said Turner.
His quarterbacks – Elrod and van Vuuren – looked empowered by the chance to show off their athleticism. Elrod racked up 140 yards rushing (the most by any Pioneer), while van Vuuren churned out 40 yards and used the look to score on a two-point play. Both are feeling comfortable at the control as the Pioneers exit the summer.
Elrod said he’s at ease since “We’re advancing the offense more because we’ve learned it and been in it. We’re coming back to it with confidence because we know it.” He also said he’s a fan of the option because “It’s good to have a read every play – you can always be right since something will be open.”
Van Vuuren, a junior who was all-region last year while playing multiple positions, added, “the comfort level this year is next level. Last year, I was kind of timid at the start of the year. I feel more comfortable at the helm and I’m ready. I think my legs can help if the pocket isn’t there, but I can also stand in the pocket and throw it. My best trait is my mobility.”
Before I can even start drumming up a QB controversy (isn’t that what media people are supposed to do?), the Pioneers have shut it down. Elrod and van Vuuren are both going to start somewhere for Warren County offensively and neither cares where that is.
“Everyday, me and Nate tell each other, ‘If you’re the No. 1 QB, I’m the No. 1 WR.’ It’s vice versa too. We help each other and always get reps together at each position. I think that combo can really help,” said van Vuuren.
Elrod added, “(The starting decision is) Whatever is best for the team. We both know we’ll be on the field. We know we can both help offensively.”
Jernigan joyful in return
If you want to see a 6-foot-5, 275-pound behemoth doing a swan dive, just check out the WCSA Twitter page. Dayton Jernigan was so happy to be back in pads for the Pioneers that he really didn’t care who he was hitting early in Monday’s scrimmage, he just wanted to be a part of all the contact.
There is no real way to quantify how much the Pioneers missed Jernigan’s presence last year. Actually – there may be. They were 1-1 with him (including beating Cookeville on the road for the first time in 30-plus years) and 0-7 with him sidelined after a torn ACL. For the math nerds, Jernigan represented 50 percent of the returning starters from the sensational Squad 52 last fall (he was 1-of-2 with Grayson, if you’re not into math).
When he was lost, the Pioneers were lost without him. Jernigan also felt the void of not having football and he’s not taking it for granted as he’s back wearing a Warren County uniform.
“I didn’t understand how much football was part of my life until I went through the recovery. It’s crazy what this game can do for people,” said Jernigan. “This senior class, this was our last spring game. It was enjoyable – and we had some trash talk. I’m glad our fans were able to enjoy it. It was just an all-around enjoyable game.”
Nothing beats watching kids play the sport they love. When they’re incredible at it, like Jernigan is, it’s just an added bonus. Welcome back Dayton – Warren County missed you!
Rapid fire takes to end this marathon column:
Donathan Lewis and Jaythan Pleasant have game-breaking speed. As awesome as it was to see them get going against each other Monday, it’s going to be a pure joy when they’re on the wings and Braylon Grayson is in at tailback. Good luck stopping that trio!
The Class of 2025 is quietly putting together something for the future. They’ll need to add some numbers for depth, but guys like Creed Adams, Lukas Bernhardt and Xander McCormick will battle for playing time this fall. There are more coming too – Adan Looper showed he has reliable hands on a short catch, Benjamin Horton got a touch and Connor Williams “C-Willy” was out there roaming the secondary.
Get to know these names – Jonathan Martinez, Camarn Carr, Wesley Sherrell and Andrew Miller. They all flashed during the scrimmage athletically and are going to be valuable players rounding out the rotations on both sides of the all and on special teams.
The Pioneers are noticeably bigger – in a good way. They aren’t like me sitting around getting Family Packs from KFC and putting on bad weight, these guys look like they’ve lived in the weight room. I don’t think these Pioneers want to have a similar moment from last year’s loss to Siegel where even the linemen were pushed around by the Stars’ running back. Leading the way on the “Getting off the Bus” team is 6-foot-8, 320-pound senior lineman Will Davis. Opposing teams are going to break their necks doing double-takes when he steps off the bus this fall.
As masterful as Turner has been adding to his roster and getting kids buying into the Pioneer Way he’s established, I know there are many more athletes roaming the halls that could help Squad 54. I won’t name them here but the Pioneer players know who they are and those kids know they have the athleticism to help too.
Think about this – Kason and Ryland Holder were super late additions to the 2019 team, while Malachi Rippy and Cristian Espinoza were first-year players (and darn good ones) as seniors. By 2020, Braden Bottoms proved to be a missing link on the line as a senior returning to the game. I strongly encourage kids to seek out players or coaches and show up when the team starts working out after Memorial Day.
I’ve seen it far too many times lately where kids either won’t try out or decide to leave teams right before they do something special. Take it from a 36-year-old who still ponders ‘What If,’ weekly when it comes to his possible chances in high school athletics, you’re better off giving it a shot and finding out now than questioning for decades later.
Don’t miss out on a chance to be a part of something special because I think Squad 54 has something brewing right now.
Video highlights of some of the big plays from Monday's scrimmage.