Thompson Warriors 2018 football prediction

Published 4:51 pm Thursday, August 16, 2018

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

History was made last year. Now, how will the Thompson Warriors respond in 2018?

The expectation when head coach Mark Freeman was brought in to run the program was for the talented coach to just win games and turn the program around.

Through three years at the helm, he has done that with flying colors. So much so that the expectation has changed from just winning games to winning state championships.

It’s an expectation that was earned last year after the team beat perennial power Hoover for the first time in school history, won their first region championship in 20 years, clinched their first playoff berth since 2007, made it past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1987 and advanced to the semifinals of the playoffs for just the third time in school history.

There is plenty of reason to think this year’s squad can defend last year’s region championship, but competing in a region that has four teams ranked in the preseason top 10 and three ranked in the top 50 nationally will make it a difficult task, especially with the loss of some key playmakers.

One position the Warriors don’t have to worry about losing any production at is quarterback, thanks to the return of First-Team All-County QB Taulia Tagovailoa.

Last season, Tagovailoa threw for 3,823 yards and 35 touchdowns to pass John Parker Wilson for third all-time on the AHSAA list for most yards in a season.

In his career, through three years as a starter at the varsity level in Hawaii and now Alabama, Tagovailoa has thrown for a total of 9,896 yards and 99 touchdowns, which is actually more than his brother Tua during his three years at the high school level.

While there will be several new faces at receiver, Tagovailoa will have a trustworthy and familiar face in the backfield alongside him thanks to the return of running back Shadrick Byrd.

Splitting time with Jojo Ford last year, Byrd found a way to grind out 1,164 rushing yards, 178 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns, making him a major threat on every play.

Byrd will be the starter this year and will be joined by Jojo Gaiters and Jarrett Crockett in backup roles.

There is no doubt this year’s Thompson offense is stacked at quarterback, running back and even on the offensive line, but what is going to be the biggest key for the Warriors’ offensive success is the receiving corps.

Thompson will lose All-County and All-State receivers Ahmad and Mo Edwards. Ahmad set a state record for receptions in a season with 118 last season, while also totaling 1,464 yards. Mo ended the year with an average of 18.5 yards per catch and totaled 1,074 yards.

That’s an insane amount of production to replace, but with a quarterback like Tagovailoa, the hope is he will click with some new faces and can help the receivers by putting the ball exactly where it needs to be placed.

Michael Pettway and Kyle Smoak will be the two leaders at the position this year after gaining a ton of experience last season. Pettway will be a deep threat, while Smoak will be a slot guy, and both are expected to play big roles this season.

Behind that, there are several guys with a lot of upside who will have the potential to become breakout players this season. A.J. Bonham, Chris Hopkins, J.B. Mitchell, Tristan Woody and Andrew Barbour are those guys. Bonham and Hopkins are two players to keep an eye as both stand around 6-foot-4.

Up front, the Warriors may have one of the best offensive lines it has ever seen with the return of Alabama commit Amari Kight, and the addition of highly-touted senior Jayme Simmons from Spain Park. Both of those guys are 6-foot-6 or taller with good size.

They’ll be joined by another returnee in Seth McMillan at center, who is a solid guy with a ton of experience. Mason Crain and Greg Inman will finish off the line, while several others are ready to add depth.

Like the receiver position, the entire defense is going to be a huge question mark this season having lost its best player at every position.

Starting in the front seven, defensive lineman Mackie McNeal is gone, but luckily for the Warriors, Erik Mizell brings back an experienced and capable lineman. He totaled 40 tackles, including five for a loss and 3.5 sacks last season.

Aubrye Glidewell and Will Hoffman will also play a lot on the line this year after getting time at the position last season.

At linebacker, which is probably the most important position in the 3-4 scheme, Thompson will lose Jalen Rayam and K.J. Robertson, who combined for close to 200 tackles last year, but will get back one of the team’s best players in UAB commit Will Conner.

Conner finished his junior season with 137 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss and five sacks, despite not playing in the first couple of games. Behind that, Freeman is seeing who will step up in fall practice, but Owen May is an inside linebacker who will play a lot this year.

While the Warriors will lose All-State defensive back Myles Brown in the secondary, the back end of the defense may be the strongest unit. Thompson will return Jalen Bustamante, Tyreke Bivins and David Douglas to the position after getting plenty of playing time last year.

Bustamante will bring back the most production after totaling 64 tackles and an interception last season, but Douglas will bring back the most picks after snagging three interceptions. Behind that, Elijah Clayton and Sam Reynolds will lock down the safety position.

Prediction: There is a lot of expectation for the Warriors this year, but they can’t let that overwhelm them and make them too confident. Remember, this is still a team that, despite all of last year’s success, came up short of its ultimate goal of a state championship after the lights were too bright in the semifinals. That unfinished business should be all of the motivation they need to stay focused and not let the outside distraction of expectation get to their heads.

The biggest advantage Thompson has is its schedule. Although the Warriors play in a difficult region, they have a seven-week separation between their two biggest games against Hewitt-Trussville and Hoover, and a bye week before their third biggest game against Spain Park. I’m not sure if they’ll repeat as region champions, but this is a team that is going to ride all of its offensive talent to another special season. Regular season wise, I see this year’s team finishing 9-1 with a chance at another region title.