Black Bears seek return to ‘respectability’ as they enter 2022 season


Tyler Helton

Team members include, from left, front row: coaches Bill Dean, Chase Huff, Dion Coldiron, Amos McCreary, Scotty Bailey, Jacob Branson and Robert Evens; second row: Chance Sturgill, Brody Hensley, Garrett Wilder, Aaron Johnson, Landon Cook, David Barger, Braxton Cornett, Ryan Coos, Hayden Maggard, Dellan Clem, Chris Johnson and Jason Maggard; third row: Jayce Brown, Jameson Wilkinson, Devin Lewis, Alex Green, Peyton Jackson, Plez Dean, Dalton Bray, James Ryan Howard and Ryan Clayborn; fourth row: Luke Kelly, Jared Rhymer, Carter Howard, Thomas Jordan, Dallas Sergent, Brayden Howard, Darren Alred, Bryan Howard, Ethan Rhymer, Landon Saylor and Hayden Maggard; fifth row: Bradley Henson, Jesse Napier, Jacob Shoemaker, Jonah Swanner, Mason Beach, Will Cassim, Tyler Baker and Toby Webb; back row: Connor Blevins, Tanner Griffin, Josh Sergent, Issac Downs, Austin Roark, Bradley Young, Gavon Spurlock, Brady Huskey and Zach Burgan.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

For a Harlan County football program that got off to a remarkably good start 15 years ago, with three regional championships and five district titles between 2010 and 2018, the fall to last place in District 8 of 4A last season was an experience that coach Amos McCreary and the Black Bears hope to never revisit.
Harlan County fell to 2-8 last season, missing the playoffs for the first time in school history. Even though most of their key players return with a year of added experience, the Bears aren’t taking anything for granted going into the season opener Friday at home against South Laurel.
“We just want to win some games and get back into the playoffs and get back some respectability,” McCreary said. “I thought last year we were out of a lot of games at halftime. We want to be in the games at the end this year and have a chance to compete all four quarters. I think our kids are playing with more intensity in these scrimmages. We just need to see how they respond to adversity.”
While they lost Demarco Hopkins and his 1,508 yards rushing to Jackson State, the Black Bears will rebuild around a big and physical line that features senior Connor Blevins and juniors Will Cassim and Jacob Shoemaker.
“I think our line will be our strength. We’re pretty big and those guys have played a lot,” McCreary said. “Our weakness is our lack of depth. We’re trying to bring on some kids who can spell us, especially on the defensive side of the ball. If we can do that and stay fairly fresh, we’ll be hard to handle up front.”
Defense, mainly poor tackling and an inability to cover receivers, played a big role in the Black Bears’ downfall last season as opponents averaged over 43 points per game.
“Tackling has been a point of emphasis for us,” he said. “We also have to play the pass better.”
McCreary has taken over as the leader of the defense, with help from former Harlan assistant Robert Evans.
“I hope so,” said McCreary of an improved defense. “They seem to be playing more aggressively. The jury is still out on that though until we see some games.”
Josh Sergent, a senior linebacker who led the Bears last year with 70 tackles, returns to lead the unit.
“What he doesn’t have in speed, he makes up for it with his mentality,” McCreary said. “He is good with the flow of the game reading plays.”
Willam Jones, a senior who has impressed the coaching staff with his aggressiveness, could take over as the other linebacker. Issac Downs and James Ryan Howard are also in the mix for playing time at linebacker.
The secondary could go from a weakness to a strength this year with juniors Jonah Swanner and Thomas Jordan, perhaps the two best athletes on the team, back as the starting safeties. Luke Kelly and Gavon Spurlock are the probable starters on the corners and former University of Kentucky receiver Bill “Petie” Dean has taken over as the defensive backs coach.
“I think a year of experience will help them,” McCreary said. “Bill has worked with them every day and worked hard.”
The Bears will be big up front with Blevins and Shoemaker returning as the tackles. Tanner Griffith shifts from linebacker to provide depth at tackle.
“We have two good ones there, and we think Tanner can help us as he learns the position,” McCreary said.
Cassim, at 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, presents matchup problem for opponents at nose guard. Darren Alred, a junior, provides another option as a smaller but quicker player in the middle.
“We’ll five opposing centers different looks with those two,” McCreary said. “Will should be able to handle any center he comes up against. We expect him to be a big part of our defense in the middle. Alred is a quick and tough kid who comes ready to work every day.”
Dallas Sergent and Carter Howard, both juniors, are the favorites to start as the defensive ends.
“You have to be able to do so much with your ends against the passing games you see now,” McCreary said. “Those two guys have experience and they are learning how to play the position. They can drop into coverage and come up on the line.”
McCreary is counting on the offensive front to be a strength for the Bears with four starters returning, including Blevins and Shoemaker at the tackles.
“They are big kids who have played a long time,” McCreary said. “Both of those guys have experience and know what they are doing up there. We think that unit will be a strength for us.”
Cassim and Downs are returning starters at guard.
“Issac is a little undersized, but he makes up for it by being aggressive and tough. He will get the job done some way,” McCreary said. “Will understands football and knows how to play the game. We just need to get his technique a little better.”
Brayden Clay, a freshman who was a standout on last year’s middle school team, is the early favorite to take over at center.
“He has a long way to go, but he comes out there and battles every single day having to go against (nose guards) Will Cassim or Darren Alred,” McCreary said. “He has to go against a big guy like Will, then sees the total opposite in a quick kid like Darren. He has been working hard every day.”
Ethan Rhymer, a 6-6 junior, returns at quarterback after something of an uneven performance in his first year as a starter. He completed 18 of 37 passes for 422 yards and had some big plays through the air but also struggled at times with shorter throws. He has spent the offseason and summer working with offensive coordinator Scotty Bailey.
“Ethan throws the deep ball pretty well, but he has to get to where he throws the short patterns better,” McCreary said. “He has to learn the short pass opens up the deep. He has the body for the position but has to get his footwork down. We have to do a better job of handling the ball on offense and improve in the short game. If we can improve there, it will open up things for us.”
Swanner is the Bears’ top big-play threat on offense with 17 of the team’s 22 catches last year for 413 yards and five touchdowns. Jayce Brown, a freshman, is also expected to see action at receiver, along with Spurlock and Brayden Howard. Brown had a touchdown in the Bears’ scrimmage win over Magoffin County and Spurlock set up a touchdown with a 34-yard catch.
“Jonah can make plays in so many ways. We’re trying to find different ways to get him the ball and not just four or five times a game,” McCreary said. “We got him some snaps as a wildcat quarterback in a scrimmage. He’s a threat when he has the ball.”
Jordan will take over for Hopkins as the Bears’ primary ball carrier. He rushed for 292 yards and three touchdowns last season in limited action on offense.
“Thomas is as quick as a cat. Once he gets out into the open field, he’s hard to hem up. He has good speed and had some big runs last year,” McCreary said.
Sergent returns at fullback with sophomore James Ryan Howard providing quality depth after a strong junior varsity campaign last year. Alred will also see action at fullback.
“Josh is a big body who can make it tough on defenses. He also did a great job blocking for us last season,” McCreary said.
Kelly and Howard, both sophomores, will see action at halfback. Kelly was a track star last spring, joining Hopkins, Jordan and Luke Carr in the 100 and 200 relays.
“Luke can really run. He could have played more last year but didn’t understand coverages real well. He looked good in our scrimmages,” McCreary said.
Jared Rhymer and Austin Roark are expected to share time at tight end.
“They have pretty good-sized bodies,” McCreary said. “Austin played there for us last year. Rhymer is just learning the position, but he is a kid who is improving daily.”
Matching last year’s offensive production while improving defensively is considered a key to success.
“Offensively, we played well enough last year to win football games,” McCreary said. “We just had a hard time defensively. If we can match what we did last year on offense, we can win some games.”
Downs will continue to handle extra points with Cassim on kickoffs and Swanner on punts.