By RUSSELL VANNOZZI
The 2017 football season was nothing short of a disaster for Franklin High School.
The Rebels went 1-7 in their first eight games, only to have a controversy surrounding two of their most highly-recruited players emerge during the final three weeks of the season.
Star linemen Max and Jake Wray were suspended for undisclosed reasons and both later left the Rebel program after their mother, Stacy, cited health and safety concerns to the Franklin coaching staff and school administrators.
Max Wray is now playing at Ohio State, and Jake Wray transferred to Marietta (Ga.) High School, leaving all parties involved with a fresh start.
And despite the circumstances, the Rebels went on to win their final two games – a 38-21 victory over Spring Hill on Oct. 20 and a 31-0 drubbing of Dickson County on Oct. 27.
Now, the Rebels are hoping to build on that positive ending.
“It was a pretty tough season last year,” Franklin senior running back Matt Gaca said at the Williamson County Football Media Day on July 16. “By the end of it, we realized we were just playing games. That helped bring the team together and (it) was an important way to finish out the season.”
Offense returns just three starters, will utilize more RPO plays
This year’s Franklin team lacks experience on offense, as just three starters return.
However, Gaca, who rushed for 874 yards and seven touchdowns last season, will again carry the load in the backfield. Kahni Kelton will also factor in the rotation, in addition to Rashad Jenkins and Jacob Whitehurst.
Junior Josh Nichols is expected to take over for departed quarterback Carter Hendry. Sophomore Connor Beavon could also see time at the position, but a preseason elbow injury has limited his participation in fall camp.
Franklin has traditionally run a triple-option offense, and Webb said his team will start to utilize more run-pass option plays in hopes of keeping opposing defenses on their toes. The Rebels threw for just 850 yards in 2017.
“We have not moved the football, so we’ve got to find a way to move it in different ways,” Webb said. “We are still running the triple-option, but we have changed it to where we’re opening it up a little bit more.”
Junior Chancellor Bright (179 yards, three touchdowns) and senior John Conner Craig (152 yards) represent Franklin’s most-experienced receivers. Senior Spencer Holder also figures to factor into the mix.
Franklin defense heavy on experience
If the Rebels are to be successful in 2018, their defense must play a large role.
Franklin returns eight defensive starters, as well as 14 experienced defensive players, according to Webb.
That includes the team’s top four tacklers from last season – Gaca (58), Christian Moolman (56), Kelton (49) and John Kirkpatrick (38).
“Defensively, we’re still in a 3-4 (formation),” Webb said. “We feel like we have a chance to be pretty good (because of) the eight returning starters.”
Moolman will anchor the defensive front, while Kelton and senior Gabe Tyner will man the linebacker position.
Junior Jett Wilson, who had two interceptions and 27 tackles last year, is likely to be the team’s top defensive back.
Gaca will also play safety, in addition to his tailback duties. He had an interception and posted four pass breakups in 2017.
“We’ve looked at ourselves and the mirror and realized we’re not at a spot where we can put 11 (different players) on offense and 11 on defense,” Webb said. “Everyone has a priority position, but we’ve got them all flip-flopped.”
County rivals loom
Franklin did not beat any of its Williamson County foes in 2017. Webb said he knows that must change for the Rebels to return to the playoffs.
He also pointed out that despite their 1-4 district record, the Rebels managed to outscore region opponents 96-85. Franklin lost to Brentwood, Centennial, Independence and Ravenwood by 10 points or less.
“You can do whatever you want to with stats,” he said. “But we were in football games and couldn’t find a way to win. We’ve got to find a way to win those in-county games.”
In addition to its Region 6-6A opponents, Franklin will travel to Riverdale (Aug. 24) and Oakland (Oct. 5) and host Hendersonville (Sept. 21) in non-league play.
“Are we going to be man enough?” Webb said. “Did we grow from (last season)? We’re going to find out.”