Thompson Football Returns to Defend Title with a New Look on Offense
The 2021 football season is etched in lore for Thompson High School. Mark Freeman’s club became the first to win three consecutive state championships in the modern era and did so in perhaps the most dominant fashion ever.
The Warriors broke the team record set in 2020 for points in a season (604) with 636 points in last year’s run to the title, but much of that production has moved on to play at the next level. Junior quarterback Zach Sims replaces departed two year starter Conner Harrell who passed for over 6,000 yards and accounted for more than 90 total touchdowns during his tenure. However, losing Harrell is just one piece to the puzzle and Coach Freeman understands the task at hand is reforming much of the entire offense.
“It’s more than Zach, every position around him is a new starter,” says Freeman. “It’s hard to come in with that many new people. Ideally, you’d have three or four guys with experience to help you do more.”
In a system that has seen each of the last three Thompson QBs win 7A Back of the Year, it’s a challenge for Sims to inherit the reins, but the coaching staff has confidence in the athletic junior who has grown up in the organization watching and learning from his predecessors.
“I think he’s worked hard and it’s a lot mentally to grasp what we ask our quarterbacks to do, but he’s been around here a long time,” says Freeman. “We expect him to progress and get a better feel in every game we play. Hopefully these first two games will give him a lot of experience and get a lot of our young guys experience.”
Sims certainly stepped up when called upon last season. Thrust into action in the team’s last regular season game at Hoover, Zach had quite the learning experience, but the experience proved fortunate as he threw two touchdown passes in the state championship in the absence of Harrell. Now, he will need to gel with a group of wide receivers short on experience.
“We’ve been fortunate and blessed to have good receivers and this year they’re all new, except Deuce Oliver who had a touchdown catch in the championship,” says Freeman. “Our season offensively is going to come down to: how fast can we find those guys who can help us at receiver?”
Receivers coach Brad Costanzo is in unfamiliar territory having had plenty of depth over the last several years at the position. It’s a tall task replacing the production of Ryan Peppins who was named Mr. Football and MVP of the state championship game along with Jaylen Ward who now plays for Middle Tennessee State University. But Costanzo will lean on the strong tradition he’s developed in the wide receiver corps over the years.
“I think our history speaks for itself, we take a lot of pride in this position and just about every kid that played for us has had a college offer or a college scholarship,” says Costanzo. “Those guys take it personal and they’ve got to carry on what we’ve built here.”
Deuce Oliver returns with the most production in the group and carved out a role for himself when injuries opened up a spot in the starting rotation last year.
“We were trying to find who could be that fourth receiver for us, Deuce stepped up and had a great end to the season,” says Costanzo. “He’s got it in him, he wants to be great, he works hard, he’s a leader, he pushes everybody and it’s going to pay off for him. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
The receiver room will also get a boost with the return of Korbyn Williams who transferred back from Pinson Valley this off-season. Warrior fans will remember him in the epic comeback of the 2020 state championship where he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Coach Freeman knows Williams has what it takes to shine in his senior season.
“Korbyn is a guy that controls his own destiny,'' says Freeman. “How much can he grasp, how much can he do? As far as his talent, the sky’s the limit, I️ love Korbyn. For us to be good, Korbyn’s going to have to have a big year and help us get that ball spread out.”
A lesser known player Coach Costanzo also believes will be a factor is junior Kolby Hearn.
“He’s sneaky fast, he’s got great hands, runs great routes and he’s put on probably 15, 20 pounds in the off-season,” said Costanzo. “He’s really grown and he can definitely be a vertical threat for us.”
While Zach Sims continues to develop a chemistry with his weapons, the Warriors will return a stellar offensive line with three starters from last year. Noah Watts, Stanton Ramil and Ryan Walker are back to anchor a group the coaching staff believes can be the strength of the offense.
“We've got the potential to have five or six seniors that are going to start or play big roles for us so the leadership has been really good,” says Coach Trey Clark. “The accountability and the extra hours outside of practice has been very encouraging. To see those guys up here on the weekends amongst themselves organizing extra work, they’ve put in a tremendous amount of work that we are excited to see play out this season.”
Stanton Ramil had a great off-season as offers poured in for the big left tackle who eventually committed to Michigan State. Noah Watts and Ryan Walker also have several scholarship offers as multi-year starters. Watts has starts under his belt dating back to his freshman year.
“Nothing beats experience and he’s got the most of all of them,” said Coach Taylor Scozzaro. “Getting the guys together on and off the field, coming up here countless hours. He brings it every day and it’s comforting to us to know we've got a guy we can depend on.”
It will be difficult finding a substitute for two year starting center Cole Hall, but rising senior Hunter Holtzman is settling in as the new signal caller and Coach Freeman has confidence in his ability.
“Hunter is good, he’s been around forever. He’s played center early in his career, we moved him to guard and we just thought we were better with him at center right now,” says Freeman. “He’s comfortable snapping and I️ expect Hunter to have a great year.”
Thompson also loses much of their rushing production as Brandon Franklin and Justin Pegues both begin their college careers. However, don’t expect a drop off as junior AJ Allen and sophomore Michael Dujon both possess the skills to make big plays in this offense.
“I’m really comfortable with our running backs, I think we’ve got two really good tandem running backs back there,” says Coach Freeman. “They can play at the same time or give each other a breather when they need to. We’re really good when both our running backs can catch out of the backfield and both of those guys can do that. They’re both hard nosed and love them both, they’re good people.”
Running backs coach Conner McGavin is also high on his group, but acknowledges that neither back has his position settled when it comes to Friday nights.
“They've had a great off-season, they’re a great group of hard-working kids. In terms of effort, they bring it every single day,” says McGavin. “They’re one of my favorite groups I’ve ever gotten to coach. I’m excited about what’s to come, but at the end of the day they’re both question marks and they’ve got to go out there and prove it.”
Allen flashed that ability multiple times throughout last season on the varsity while Dujon dominated on the freshman team. AJ has waited patiently behind some great RBs and is poised to show what he can do.
“I️ really think this could be a coming out party for him this year. He’s strong but he’s got that quick twitch and that home run ability where he can take it from just about anywhere on the field,” said McGavin. “He really wants to take on that leadership role and that’s something I’ve kind of challenged him on. At the end of the day, he’s going to be a focal point of our offense.”
Dujon is a playmaker as well with a different build, but just as capable of carrying the load if needed.
“He’s a little thicker, a little bit more heavy set. Runs behind his pads,” says McGavin. “He had a great campaign with the freshman team last year and I always knew that he was going to have to be one of the guys coming into this year.”
The run game will also be fortified by another bulky guy in senior Jeffrey Kimochu who will play at halfback and tight end in multiple sets and can be a catalyst for the offense. Coach Freeman believes he can be a difference maker.
“Jeffrey Kimochu is a kid that every coach we have loves. He works hard and just a great kid,” says Freeman. “He’ll come in at H-back and tight end and we’ll look a little different this year.”
A roster full of fresh new faces ensures this new look offense at Thompson will be anything but predictable. Warrior fans should expect a powerful, gritty attack whose identity will evolve as the season progresses. The new season is here and now the pursuit of a fourth straight state championship begins in earnest.