Simmons Says - Turner rebuilding roster
Don’t ditch the bandwagon Pioneer Nation. Football isn’t ready to fall off the map again after last year’s fantastic voyage.
Friday’s sneak peak of the Pioneers, during the Lift-A-Thon that will infuse the program with over $25,000, showed that the cupboard is far from bare for coach Matt Turner and his staff. Sure, there will be new horses that will be pulling the wagon this year, but there are still some stallions in the stable.
What was more striking to me Friday, aside from the sheer number of people or Turner’s ability to promote like no other, was that the Pioneers may not be as athletic as the 2020 group, but they prepare just as hard. In just two short years, Turner has completely changed the mindset of Warren County football – from kids just showing up to say they played to young men (and women) busting their tails to make sure the wins keep coming. You can see it in their eyes, when they flex and especially with how they carry themselves – this group really enjoyed the taste of victory last year and wants to be sipping on more Ws this fall.
Look no further than the team’s returning all-region standouts: LB/RB Braylon Grayson and OT/DL Dayton Jernigan. They are operating at a different level right now, no longer playing a secondary role to a roster stocked full of talented seniors. To borrow a line from Dick Vitale, Grayson and Jernigan are the BMOC’s now – the Big Men on Campus!
Nobody should overlook the Pioneers with Dayton Jernigan and Braylon Grayson still around.
Jernigan embraces in figuratively and literally. It doesn’t take long to notice him in a group – he’s usually the one who towers over teammates and is throwing around the big weights. Grayson may not have the height of Jernigan – a 6-foot-4, 250-plus pound monster – but he doesn’t lack for strength.
In the premier lifting categories (bench, squat, power cling, deadlift) at Friday’s event, Grayson’s name was near the top of every list. It was also at the top of the list when the team took turns trying to blaze a path in the 40-yard dash.
They weren’t the only standouts though. Hunter Johnson, a current freshman, had the team’s highest deadlift at 475 pounds. Justus Majors, a new face in the crowd, showed he run step-for-step with any Warren County player. Jaythan Pleasant is going to be an imposing figure in pads for the Pioneers too.
I could go on and on --- Brayden McKinley packs a lot of power into a svelte frame, Madison Christian is still working hard and inspiring teammates, Eli Cantrell will turn heads this fall, Will Davis looks like a beast in training, standing over 6-foot-6 and weighing over 300 pounds. Don’t forget too – Friday was sectionals for the track team. Some of the fastest Pioneers (Donathan Lewis and Harley Hernandez come to mind) weren’t at the Lift-A-Thon.
One person I’d like to single out though is Kaden Rutledge. Most know him from his time on the court, but it looks like one of the most talented athletes at WCHS is embracing the gridiron. He picked up pads this week and put on a show at Friday’s showcase.
Rutledge ran the fastest 40 time by any Pioneer, clocking a sub 4.8 run, and soared 31 inches while testing his the vertical leap (one of just two players to go over 30 inches). He was immediately noticeable, a gifted athlete doing things that just come natural to him.
While his accomplishments were enough to garner individual praise, I wanted to talk about Kaden because his move to football is one I hope other athletes at Warren County will consider too.
Just two years ago, I suggested – with no attempt at making a joke – that coach Turner hire every coach of a male sport at WCHS as his assistants. I thought that if they spent their time at Nunley Stadium every Friday in the fall, the athletes they lead in other seasons would decide to join too.
I’m not sure that it will take Chris Sullens, Phillip King and Matt Jackson to join the staff – though they’d probably be welcomed warmly – to jolt the numbers now, but there are still great athletes in other sports who I feel would find glory on the football field too.
For years, we heard that the guys were roaming the halls at WCHS, but every Friday night, they were content with being in the stands than on the field. It was always the great ‘what-if’ in Warren County, our way to hanging onto a glimmer of hope as losing seasons piled up.
Well, it wasn’t just talk. It’s true – if you get the best kids playing, Warren County will win. Turner showed it his first season, highlighted by Lacedrick ‘Red’ Cox becoming a two-way dynamo in his first ever time on the gridiron, and it was apparent again last year when a few newcomers (Braden Bottoms comes to mind first) helped push the programs to levels we haven’t seen in 40 years.
It wouldn’t have happened if coach Turner wasn’t able to convince Cox, Bottoms, Kason Holder, Ryland Holder, Malachi Rippy, Cristian Espinoza, Ben Rivers and many others to put on the pads (or, in many instances, put on the pads again). I want to see even more kids make similar leaps to help the 2021 team.
Imagine Eli Kuykendall, a bruiser in the paint for the Pioneers, lighting up runners at Nunley Stadium. Could kids like Treyton Terry and Isaiah Cummings, gifted athletes who just hoop now, be dancing in the endzone? What would happen if Alex van Vuuren, Easton Denning and more big, strong baseball players suited up? How fast would the Pioneers be with track standouts Uriah King, Brayan Holguin and Alec Smith? Would any of coach Jackson’s soccer players want to join the battle this summer and fall as Turner looks to replace his kicker and punter?
There are so many good athletes who could help this fall. And coach Turner could help them!
I doubt coach Sullens would mind to have guys come back bigger and stronger on the court come winter. After all, the Pioneers just won back-to-back district championships and, in each year, at least three starters (and several role players) were also football players.
In baseball, coach King currently has a starting lineup featuring two kids already signed on football scholarships (the Holder brothers) and two more (Rivers and Bottoms) that played football last year. I don’t think it’d be going out on a limb to say a few – or all - of those senior baseball players who didn’t play (Ty Martin, Jace Brantley, the Wilsons and Omari Harris to name a few) would have been tremendous help to last year’s already historic year.
I get it – some parents just don’t want their kids to play. And some kids just don’t want to play football – they like their sports and just want to focus on them. Those things happen.
But if you’ve been on the fence or ever just had the itch to try it out, do yourself a favor and go get a helmet ASAP from coach Turner. They’re building something special and kids should want to be a part of it.