Prediction: Briarwood moving forward with reloaded roster

Published 1:29 pm Friday, August 11, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – After a disappointing season in 2022, Briarwood is entering a transitional year in 2023.

The expectations were sky high going into last season with a great group of seniors led by five-star quarterback Christopher Vizzina, but the Lions struggled as they transitioned to Class 6A, Region 3.

Now, Briarwood is back in a familiar position of reloading, but the Lions still have exciting players returning from last season as well as potential breakouts waiting in the wings for their chance to shine.

That includes a trio of defensive leaders in Jack Cornish at linebacker, Max Luster on the defensive line and Grey Reebals in the secondary.

Cornish has been putting in the work on and off the field to get better this season, and he has been learning well from his coaches on defense as well as head coach Matthew Forester, who was a record-setting linebacker himself. Luke Reynolds, Asa Harris and Griffin Albright will all be players to look out for around him, but Forester especially noted Brooks Alred as a tough and gritty underclassman who has been working hard on both sides.

Luster leads a veteran defensive line that includes Luke Dickinson, Andrew Kassouf, Cace Reynolds and Garrett Witherington. Witherington is the only starter who isn’t a senior, but all five of them are talented, hard-working and ready to make an impact this year.

Rounding out the defense at the secondary, Reebals will continue get playing time at both ends of the field as he returns to the secondary after a season at nickel back. He will be joined by Ethan Carr, Patrick Wilson and Will Werchanowskyj at cornerback and Rylan Hamm, Wes Burgess and Brooks Travis at safety in what Forester believes is one of the smartest and most natural position groups.

On the other end of the field, the offense has a lot of questions to answer, with the most important one being at quarterback. Josh Thompson and Will Clark have big shoes to fill after Vizzina’s graduation, but Forester is confident in both of their abilities as an athlete and at the quarterback position. Whoever winds up starting will have an offense tailored to their skillset as Forester looks to scale back and specialize after years with Vizzina under center.

The running game will become more of a focus with a new starting quarterback, and luckily for the Lions, they have two great returning starters in Cooper Higgins and Evan Robson. They will share the carries as Briarwood will look to use their physical style between the tackles to establish the line of scrimmage.

Briarwood also has an arsenal of weapons at receiver to make life easier for Thompson and Clark. Forester said that Sawyer Click has grown physically and mentally and has been extremely hard working, and as a result, he is very likely to have a breakout season as a senior.

Gabe Margene and Ben McNulty are also both poised for strong years, and the receiver room will also benefit from a deep tight end group and a pair of cornerbacks at receiver in Caleb Keller as a full-time addition and Reebals playing part-time while seeing snaps on both ends of the field.

Rounding out the offense is a strong and united offensive line that has benefitted greatly from the arrival of former Mountain Brook coach Tony Johnson as the offensive line coach. His new schemes are designed to take advantage of their physicality and specialties as athletes. New leaders have developed across the line who have brought the offense closer together, including star left tackle Luke Schultz, who recently committed to Mercer and is excited to exclusively focus on making Briarwood better now that his recruiting journey is over.

Trey Saunders will be another talented senior on the left side, and the rest of the offensive line is stacked with solid players, including Tanner Hudson and Barnabas Karanja at center and Lude Solomon, Cole Carter and Charlie Thompson on the right side.

Forester knows that Briarwood has a history of success, and he has helped develop that winning culture within this group of players. The Lions are a strong unit who have been well prepared to step into the roles that the previous classes have excelled at, and they believe they can get back to the core of Briarwood football: winning football games and making the most of their locker room.

Prediction: 4-6. Briarwood has a lot of questions to answer this year after losing big names in key positions, with none bigger than Vizzina at the quarterback position. It’s easy to focus on what Briarwood has lost until you realize what they have coming back: solid veteran contributors across the defense and on the offensive line as well as a slew of returners across the offensive skill positions. Forester and the Lions have clearly been preparing for the day when they lost all of the talent they lost last year, and Briarwood has a proud history of reloading at any position that they lose talented players at. This year feels different, though, because of the caliber of players the Lions lost last year, the lack of proven players left on the offense and the tough 6A region and 7A nonconference opponents that they face. Nobody on Briarwood’s schedule is a cakewalk, which make it difficult to find wins for a developing team to earn. However, we’ve all learned to doubt Briarwood at our own risk, so I believe they will find a way to win more games than last year even though they are still a year or two out from making it back to the playoffs.