Rockets reload under Stephenson
The Forrest Rockets faltered in 2017, posting a losing record (4-7) for the first time in 11 years.
And they lost their coach as Brent Johns stepped down after two years at the helm.
Johns’ defensive coordinator Eli Stephenson, who has been on the staff since 2014, took over to become the fifth Forrest head football coach in seven years.
Don’t expect to see a complete overhaul to the football scheme as Forrest alum Matthew Delk takes over the defensive coordinator duties, while Stephenson implements a Hybrid Wing-T on offense.
“It’s going real good because we kept the core of coaches here and have the same philosophy on everything, we just tweaked everything a little bit,” Stephenson said. “We are going to run the rock and play great defense. That has been our motto here for a long time and it’s worked in the past and worked everywhere I’ve been.”
The Rockets have enough returning experience to make it work, especially in the loaded running back position, plus a stable core of offensive linemen, a senior quarterback, and a few very good wide receivers and tight ends.
The biggest change during the offseason was moving junior Blaize Sweeney to tailback where he can use his brute strength to compliment fellow classmate and 2017 All-Region running back Nick McClendon, who led the Rockets in rushing last season with 1,388 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“We have been putting in a lot of work installing a new offense and we are still getting better,” McClendon said. “It’s a more diverse offense this year, but we are still going to use the run to open the pass and the pass to open the run.”
McClendon will still be the key to the Rockets’ success and has taken on a bigger role this season as a team leader who can stay on the field.
“I’m working on that and we should not be seeing any of that, it’s all adrenaline pretty much,” McClendon said. “I’m trying to stay vocal and keep everybody up.”
McClendon also has another goal besides putting up a winning record and making the playoffs and that is breaking his brother Zach’s single season rushing mark of 1,948 yards and 28 touchdowns set in 2014. “I’m going for my brother’s record, that’s what I’m going for,” a smiling McClendon said. “Honestly, we are trying for a winning season this year, 4-7 was no good and we are not satisfied at all and we have to keep being hungry.”
Sweeney only rushed the ball 10 times last year for 105 yards and one touchdown, but is relishing his new position that will also see him come out of the backfield to catch some passes.
“It’s a big change, but it kind of has the same concept behind it, you get used to it if you just practice,” Sweeney said. “We are going to try to mix it up this year, throw the ball and get some short routes to hit the deep ball and run it a little bit.”
“We have always been known for our toughness and grit and we are trying to bring that back this year and show everybody we are still Forrest football.”
McClendon also caught seven passes for 108 yards.
Sweeney’s brother Boone won the 2015 Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Award as the Division I Class 2A Lineman of the year.
“They have changed those rules a little bit, so it’s gonna be kinda hard to do,” Sweeney said about getting the same award in the future. “I’m just trying to do what my team needs me to do, other than that, I’m satisfied.”
McClendon and Sweeney lead the most talented group on the squad in the backfield position with Wes McCoy, Jacob Wright, and Joseph Whitaker backing up McClendon, while freshman bowling ball Cason Warner has moved up the depth chart to back up Sweeney.
“It’s good to have this many running backs because we can rotate a lot to keep them fresh and continue to run that rock,” Stephenson said. “Sweeney is a more of a downhill runner for us and I thought he would be better there in the scheme we run with Nick being a better runner in space.”
Senior signal caller Josh Meglis has waited in the wings a couple of years for a chance to lead the squad and has worked hard to improve his overall game.
“Spring practice was kinda rough,” Meglis said. “After our coach left we had to learn a new system, there are a couple of bumps and bruises we have to fix, but we are coming in and working hard every day.”
Meglis played in nine games last season, completing 27 out of 56 passes for 523 yards with two touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“I’m pretty close to learning the new offense, but I have to get way better in learning the entire system than I already am, that comes down to my progressions with the receivers, the running backs, the tight ends, everybody.”
“My personal opinion is we are going to be better than last year, of course everyone’s goal is the state championship, but we are going to take it game by game and our goal is to get to the playoffs.”
Backing up Meglis is sophomore Max Kirby, who had an outstanding middle school career at quarterback.
“Meglis has gotten tremendously better since the offseason,” Stephenson said. “He has taken coaching very well and bringing it out on the practice. I just have to see him bring it to the scrimmages and Friday nights.”
The Rockets are also strong at the tight end position with senior Pryor Haines taking over the starting spot, while Noah Hill, Joel Burton, and freshman Jeremiah Beasley back him up.
Junior Spencer McCown and senior Gauge Anderson are just two of the receivers Meglis will target this season as the Rockets will try to put the ball in the air more than in the past.
McCown, who tied McClendon with the team high seven receptions last season is the only receiver on the Forrest roster to catch a touchdown pass last season. McCown had 184 yards and two touchdowns with a long of 40 yards.
None of the above will have much success without a strong offensive line and the Rockets have found the right mix, anchored by senior center Dowlen Hosford.
On the left side is senior tackle Billy Perryman and junior guard Tate Garvin, while seniors Jayme Ozburn (Tackle) and Carter Housch (Guard) hold down the right side of the line.
“I think if we play as a team we will do pretty good this year,” Garvin said. “We need to just play ball, not worry about personal fouls, just play ball. When the bell rings at BGA we will be ready to knock some heads.”
During the course of the season this group always gets some bumps and bruises and waiting in reserve are Noah Hill, Sammy Williams, Kody Patin, Anton Overstreet, and Tayshawn Golden.
“I think the changes that coach Stephenson has made have been good, they make us more fluid,” Perryman said. “We are playing to win the region and get home playoff games.”
The Forrest kicking game is another strength of the team with All-Region MVP punter McCoy leading the group, while Dalton Colvin and Carson Baker will continue to split time at placekicker.
Delk, a former Rocket defensive back has to be licking his chops as the new defensive coordinator as he heads a talented, hungry group of players who have been schooled in a Stephenson schemed system that has produced the results of a stingy unit for several years.
“I'm excited and honored to be the DC at my alma mater,” Delk said. “I would like to thank coach Stephenson for giving me the chance to lead the defense and I will work day and night to make sure these kids are ready to play on Friday nights.”
On the defensive line are ends Perryman and Hill as Garvin holds down the nose position.
Williams, Overstreet, Hosford, and Jayme Ozburn are the backups.
Hill had 33 tackles last season.
At Will linebacker is senior Justin Leonard with Warner in reserve and at the Mike position is Wright and McCoy sharing the spot.
McCoy had 25 tackles last season and had one pick and Wright had 10 tackles.
The outside linebackers are Sweeney and Haines at the starting positions and Burton and Christian Hammond will get a lot of snaps as well.
“Our linebackers are going to be good this year, we have a bunch of rotators like Cason Warner, so we are getting a lot better and I think we are going to be good,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney is the leading returning tackler with 44 takedowns last season, plus a sack and an interception.
“We are head hunting in practice, there is no mercy out here, you hit anybody you need to,” Sweeney said. “You don’t have a secure spot out here, that’s what coach Delk said on defense and it’s the same way on offense, so you’re out here hunting.”
Haines had 14 tackles, one interception and leads the Rocket returners with three sacks.
“Pryor has shown lots of growth in his maturity and work ethic over the winter and summer,” Delk said. “He has stepped up as a vocal leader on and off the field. I love his toughness and will rely on him to be a big time player for us this season.”
McClendon is the starter at strong safety with two-time TSSAA state wrestling champion Jeff Gross moving up the depth chart and he will see quality time at various spots on the field.
McClendon had 24 tackles last season, two sacks, and a fumble recovery.
Kirby gets the start at free safety as Cole Villazon heals up and Alex Patmore and McCown are the starting cornerbacks with Cannon Cervantez and Layne Bowman waiting in the wings as very capable players.
“Alex has made huge strides over the last two months and has shown the coaching staff he is ready to be a complete football player,” Delk said. “He has great ball skills, an excellent open field tackler and is a very tough kid. The sky's the limit for Alex.”
McCown had 13 tackles in 2017 and he had one interception and a fumble recovery. Villazon also had 13 tackles and one pick.
“Stopping the offensive run game will always be our number one priority,” Delk said. “We will have 11 white helmets running to the ball with relentless intensity and pursuit.”
“I love to keep it simple defensively for the kids. The less they have to think, the more fast and furious they will play. Read your keys and attack, attack, attack.”
The Rockets have a tough task to start the season as they have back-to-back road games to start the season at six-time TSSAA state champion Battle Ground Academy in Week One and at Fayetteville in Week Two.
The Rockets make their home debut on August 31 when they take on longtime rival Eagleville at Murrey E. Holton Field in the first of three consecutive Region 5 games in a row.
“We have to win those region games, that’s the games we most focus on,” Stephenson said. “We have to go out and compete and learn how to finish games and be disciplined, we have been working on that the entire offseason.”
The game will be a big test for the Forrest defense as they will have to contain all-state senior quarterback Ethan Cobb, who threw for 1,581 yards, rushed for 742 yards and had a hand in 31 total touchdowns.
The Rockets travel to Summertown in Week 4 before hosting defending region champion Columbia Academy. The Rockets fell 14-6 in a close game to the Bulldogs last season at Columbia.
Forrest will have to contend with senior all-state running back Tre Davidson, who ran for 1,812 yards and 18 touchdowns on 229 carries, while the offensive line has to stop another all-state selection in Rush Lansdell, who had 72 tackles (12TFL) with two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a recovery.
Watertown comes to Chapel Hill in Week 5 for Homecoming as the Rockets try to avenge a tough 8-7 loss to the Purple Tigers last season on the road.
The main focus for the Rockets is two-way standout senior Heath Price.
The Tennessee Tech commit put up 1,399 all-purpose yards and 19 total touchdowns on offense and led the Purple Tiger defense with 118 tackles, three sacks and an interception.
That tough six-game stretch gets even tougher as the Rockets make two long trips in a row to Lewis County and Loretto before a much-needed bye on October 12.
The Rockets finish the 2018 campaign with back-to-back home games versus archrival Cascade and a much improved Community Vikings squad to end the season.
“The main thing for me is we have to get better every week,” Stephenson said. “The only prediction I have is we will play disciplined football, control the ball, and play great defense. If we do that we will be fine.”
Prediction: 6-4, 2nd place in Region 5-2A.
2017 Region 5-AA Standings
Columbia Academy (12-2, 6-0)
Lewis County (10-2, 5-1)
Eagleville (9-3, 4-2)
Forrest (4-7, 3-3)
Community (4-6, 2-4)
Summertown (1-9, 1-5)
Loretto (2-8, 0-6)
2017 All-Region Returning Players
Most Valuable Player (Punter): Wes McCoy
Coaching records since 2003
Eli Stephenson (2018-present)
Brent Johns (2016-2017): 15-9
Matt Kriesky (2014-2015): 17-6
Brian Coleman (2013): 8-4
Joe Moos (2012): 6-5
Kyle Stacey (2002-2011): 60-47
2018 Forrest Coaching Staff
Head Coach-Eli Stephenson
Defensive Coordinator-Matthew Delk
Special Teams/OL-Kyle Stacey
Assistant Coach-Tony Johnson
Assistant Coach-Corey Bishop
2018 Forrest Roster
|Athletic Trainer||Gaby Lampley|
2018 Forrest Rockets Schedule
August 17-at BGA
August 24-at Fayetteville
September 7-at Summertown*
September 14-Columbia Academy*
September 21-Watertown (HC)
September 28-at Lewis County*
October 5-at Loretto*
All game start at 7 p.m.
*Denotes Region Game