By SAM McGAW
Matt Kriesky set the bar high in his first season as Centennial’s head coach last fall, but can he build on the early success?
The Cougars finished last season with an 11-2 record and a Class 5A state quarterfinal appearance. This year, they transition back to Class 6A with several new starters and a difficult schedule.
“We graduated 25 seniors, so we have a lot of holes to fill this upcoming season,” Kriesky said at the Williamson County Schools Media Day. “We’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to come out each Friday night and give it our best, and we’re not going to back down from anyone. We’re going to fight until the final horn.”
Senior quarterback Tre Stewart is one of the few returning starters for a Centennial offense that averaged 29.3 points per game last season.
He wasn’t asked to do much in a run-heavy offense last season, as he passed for 1,345 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, with almost a complete turnover of skill players, Stewart will likely have a bigger role fall on his shoulders in 2017.
“We’re fortunate to have Tre Stewart at quarterback coming back,” Kriesky said. “He’s become more of a vocal leader. Last year, he just went out and did his thing. He didn’t have to be as vocal because of the senior class, but now he’s stepping up and filling those shoes of the previous class.”
With Austin Waddell (stats) gone, Stewart will lean on Tavion Fleming as his top weapon at receiver. The dynamic playmaker recorded 380 receiving yards, 208 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s having to play both ways,” Kriesky said about Fleming. “I tell him he’s not coming off the field.
“He’s going to play corner for us, he’s going to play receiver for us, he’s going to return kicks. I don’t know when he’s going to have time to catch his breath. He’s going to be on the field at all times.”
Ryan Newby and Kevin Towns could also see time at receiver.
Following the departure of workhorse running back Zyon Lee, the Cougars will lean on junior Jariel Wilson and senior Tremond Coffee in the backfield.
Wilson registered 657 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016.
“I don’t know why the head coach last year wanted just focus (Wilson) on defense,” Kriesky joked. “We had some injuries and had to throw him in there (at running back). I think his first touch he carried it for 60-something yards. I was telling coaches, who was the guy that wanted to only keep him on defense? He proved me wrong.”
One of the hardest-hit areas for Centennial is on the offensive line. The unit lost Class 5A Mr. Football Lineman of the Year finalist Eli Katina, as well as Nick Bell, Nolan Daniel and Hayes Morrow.
Ryan Staples and Jacob Spears are the only linemen that return with considerable experience. Wyatt Grupa will be the starting center.
“We’re fortunate enough to have one of the best o-line coaches in the state in B.J. Oliver,” Kriesky said. “He’s doing a great job with our young offensive line. He’ll have them clicking on all cylinders by Aug. 18.”
The Cougars have a lot of holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball after losing their top playmakers.
One of the hardest-hit areas is at linebacker, following the departures of Clay Carder (119 tkls, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR) and Tony Wall (101 tkls, 7 sacks, 3 FF, 2 INT).
With their production gone, the Cougars will lean on senior Josh Rowan (58 tkls, 2 FR) and junior Miajhe Johnson to man the inside linebacker spots.
“(Rowan) is another one that’s having to step up and be a vocal leader,” Kriesky stated. “He’s quiet and he does everything the coaches ask him to do. He’s very physical. We just need him to be more of a vocal leader on the defensive side of the ball.”
Trevor Jones returns to a role up front, while the team looks to replace Connor Tremayne, Connor Hatcher and Katina.
In the secondary, the Cougars will deal with the departures of safety Senturian DuReaux (117 tkls, 5 FF, 3 INT, 2 sacks, 1 FR) and cornerbacks Devious Christmon (39 tkls, 5 INTs) and Austin Waddell (44 tkls, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR). Christmon was an all-state selection last season.
Wilson (83 tkls, 2 INTs, 2 FF) will return to his starting role at safety, while Fleming will play corner. Coffee (62 tkls, 3 FR, 1 INT) will also see time in the secondary, while senior Zach Steere is in the running for multiple spots throughout the defense.
“He’s a hard worker,” Kriesky said. “Right now, he plays a little bit of outside linebacker, plays corner and plays safety. He’s kind of a rotator. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He doesn’t complain. He just wants on the field. He’s fighting, tooth and nail, trying to find a spot on the field.”
Not only will the Cougars endure a tough Region 6-6A this season, but their matchups outside of league play are far from cakewalks.
Their non-region opponents include Hendersonville, Cane Ridge, Riverdale, Hillsboro and Summit. Those teams had a combined record of 39-19 last fall.
Centennial opens the season with three straight road contests.
“I hear from my coaches every single day that I didn’t do us any favors by doing the schedule,” Kriesky joked. “We have a tough, tough year.”
Centennial’s region opponents – Ravenwood, Independence, Franklin, Dickson County and Brentwood – combined to go 43-22 in 2016.
“It’s going to be a tough region for us,” Kriesky said. “There aren’t going to be any off weeks and there won’t be any breathing room.”
Sam McGaw is the sports editor for Brentwood Home Page, Franklin Home Page, Nolensville Home Page and Spring Hill Home Page. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcGaw_ .