Thompson took their first football state championship in 37 years and did so in style scoring the most points per game (42.7) and overall (555) in school history. With Sawyer Pate at the helm of the offense, Mark Freeman’s bunch maximized their potential even with a brand new offensive line. Now, Pate, the 2019 Back of the Year, along with his right hand man, Michael Pettway, are looking for their opportunities to play on Saturdays leaving the Warriors’ offense to forge a new identity going forward.
Pate and Pettway were there from Freeman’s first days at Thompson and had ten years combined in his system. Even with the experience the Warriors return, you don’t go replacing players of their caliber easily—if at all.
“When we lost Mike we lost a guy who knew how to get open, he was really strong in the red zone and then we lost the trigger guy, Sawyer,” says Freeman. “This is a QB friendly offense and Sawyer really got it.”
The duo connected for 16 touchdowns and had over 60 between the two of them in 2019. Nearly the equivalent of 3-4 starters on other teams. That’s a lot of production to replace.
Thompson will do it by committee at receiver with an exciting returning cast and two quarterbacks in junior Connor Harrell and senior Cade Golden who have a diverse set of skills for Freeman to employ on opposing defenses. Harrell is an athletic, dual-threat QB who has also grown up in Freeman’s system and brings a new dimension to the offense while Golden—a transfer from last year—is a gunslinger that’s been in several systems in his high school career and provides a steady hand.
They’ll have a vast array of weapons at their disposal akin to a James Bond film so the Warriors will continue their trademark air attack. There may even be a little Skyfall.
“With Ryan Peppins, who I️ brought on later in the season last year, we almost return four starters at receiver with Sam (Reynolds) back on offense exclusively,” says Freeman.
Senior Sam Reynolds’ return to the offense bolsters a wide receiver corps that was already heavy with experience. Reynolds, a South Carolina commit and member of the MaxPreps All-State preseason team, has been a playmaker since his sophomore year on both sides of the ball with speed to burn and racked up 375 yards and 6 TDs (including a kick return TD) in 2019 before moving over to help the defense. Wide receivers coach Brad Costanzo is happy to have him back.
“Sam is physically gifted and after 20 years I don’t think I’ve ever had a receiver that’s built like him with the physical attributes he has,” says Costanzo. “He's as strong as an ox and he can do a little bit of everything for us.“
Full-time receivers JB Mitchell and Tre Roberson return with over 1000 yards and 14 TDs between the two of them last season. The wiry, senior D-1 prospects present a slew of matchup problems for defenses and are great blockers on the edge as well. Mitchell, who has over 1300 yards and 13 TDs in his career, holds double digit offers while Roberson is a recent Army commit that will also be playing on Saturdays.
Junior Ryan Peppins has been something of a secret weapon to this point finding his way onto the field as a freshman in 2018 and breaking out in last year’s playoff run. The fleet-footed receiver possesses great quickness and has become one of the best route runners on the team.
“Each one of our guys brings a different characteristic. You know, you’ve got the size outside with JB and Tre. You’ve got the shiftiness and quickness inside with Peppins and Sam,” says Costanzo.
The running back room returns a great deal of talent and experience as well, but will miss departed senior Jojo Gaiters who was key to giving the Warrior offense the balance it needed while breaking in a new offensive line.
“Jojo had a lot of things that Shad (Byrd) had, just the intangibles,” says RB coach Connor McGavin. “Being a football player, stuff you can’t teach, just being on the fly and understanding the situation, being instinctive. He immersed himself in our team culture.”
Senior Jarrett Crockett will lead the group as a Swiss Army knife type of running back just as capable of bowling someone over as he is taking one to the house. With over 1100 career yards and ten TDs last season, Crockett is ready to pick up where he left off before nagging injuries delayed a breakout season last fall.
“Jarrett needs to step up and be the leader as the senior in the room and he’s taking on that role,” says McGavin. “He understands his potential and has lofty goals for himself this year.”
Another back that broke onto the scene in 2019 was sophomore Brandon Franklin who posted 281 yards and six TDs. Franklin has an incredible frame and was used in a lot of short yardage situations last year as he continued to learn the offense. Now, as a junior, he’s added speed and his knowledge of the system will allow him to find those holes along the line. If he gets to the second level, watch out.
The guys opening those holes will be using the growing pains of last season as motivation to pave some road in 2020. The senior-laden offensive line featuring guys like Connor Howard, Anthony Kilburn, Anthony Butler and Jesse Ramil will be joined by juniors Cole Hall, Parker Mitchell and sophomore Noah Watts as the Warriors look to regain their powerful 2018 form. Offensive line coach Mark Reaves is looking forward to a fun season.
“Their confidence level is up, from the junior year to the senior year is when the offensive line makes that jump. When we had Amari (Kight) and Seth McMillan they made a huge jump their senior year and these guys are making that jump now,” says Reaves. “They’re so much better football players now as far as being smart and really understanding the game and being leaders on the team.”
That knowledge will pay dividends down the road as well as smooth the transition at the quarterback—a luxury they weren’t afforded last year. A potent run game will also take the pressure off the new starter as defenses are forced to drop more defenders into the box, clearing routes for receivers to make their moves.
The holes the Warriors’ offense has to fill aren’t small by any means, but the new look attack that is now forming in Alabaster could contain more threats than ever before.