PIGSKIN 2016: Bulldogs have lofty expectations

    Murphy – One look at the various polls that come out prior to a high school football season and it is once again obvious that the Murphy High School Bulldogs have a lot to live up to.
    But with coach David Gentry at the helm, Murphy should have little trouble meeting and exceeding expectations.
    Gentry will oversee a team that has been picked to win the Smoky Mountain Conference by a coaches poll from North Carolina Preps. Those same coaches also placed the Bulldogs as fourth in the state in the 1A preseason “Baker’s Dozen” rankings, one slot ahead of fellow conference tenant and 2015 state runner-up Robbinsville.
    Entering his 33rd year as the head coach of the Bulldogs, Gentry has a reputation for producing winning football teams. He currently holds the most coaching wins in Western North Carolina with 366. Murphy has won two state titles in this decade and have done so without winning the Smoky Mountain Conference (2011 and 2013).
    So it should come as no surprise that Gentry is appreciative of the preseason rankings that have been awarded to Murphy, but plans to produce a winning team regardless of if the Bulldogs are ranked first or last.
    Last year, the Bulldogs advanced to the third round of the state playoffs, falling to Robbinsville 20-14 in the third round. Murphy finished the season with an overall record of 10-4.
    Looking ahead to present day, the sky is the limit for Murphy, as the Bulldogs return several familiar faces.
    Now a junior, Joey Curry took over at quarterback midway through last season, taking over for the graduated state champion quarterback Dalton Kent. Curry provided a good arm and picked up the slack for the Murphy running game, which struggled last year. He played in all 14 games, completing 71 of 123 passes for 1,009 yards and had 78 carries on the ground for 538 rushing yards, as well. Curry has been named the Most Valuable Player in a preseason N.C. Preps Western North Carolina 1A football coaches poll.
    “Curry is a real fine quarterback,” Gentry said. “We’re really excited about him being our quarterback. His ability to pass and run is a tremendous advantage for us.”
    Backing Curry up at quarterback is sophomore Micah Nelson, who Gentry said has progressed nicely since summer workouts began.
    The running game also bolsters another important player from last season. Also a junior, Kadrian McRae compiled 1,522 rushing yards on 232 carries as a running back for the Bulldogs in 2015, which earned him All-Conference recognition. In spite of that, Gentry believes that McRae has yet to reach his peak performance level.
    “McRae seems to have a renewed ‘want-to,’” Gentry said. “He wants to get better. He worked a lot harder in the offseason on his weight program. He didn’t have his best season last year. He knows it. I know it. We all know it. He’s come in with a different attitude.”
    Joining McRae in the backfield will be Riley Blalock, Keivon Allen, Slade McTaggert and Chase Roberts, all of whom Gentry sees as able to plug in at multiple positions.
    According to Gentry, the receiving game is “up in the air,” but did mention Colton Posey was one of the key components to the success of the receivers. However, he was quick to tout the talent available to successfully implement the wingback positions.
    “We call them ‘hybrid’ players, because they have to be able to run and catch the football,” Gentry said about the wingbacks. “Ian Davis, Blalock, (Tanner) Creelman and DeAndre Jackson. That’s a pretty solid group. It’s hard to say which of them will lead.”
    Senior linemen Adam Powell, another All-Conference player and Isaac Stafford will also be key components to Murphy and its success this season. Powell had 100 tackles and four sacks last season, while Stafford had 25 tackles and one sack in four games.
    “Powell, Stafford on the defense and (Joseph) Deetz on the offensive side. They’re our leading linemen,” Gentry said. “Luke Newton is also another senior that will join them on the line and lead.”
    Gentry also left the door open on who will be starting for the Murphy secondary, alluding to the fact that he has “six or seven players to fill four spots,” but mentioned that Creelman, Davis, Jackson, Posey, Colby Hensley and Nelson were the front-runners to fill the slots.
    One area that the Bulldogs struggled with last season was with special teams. Gentry said his staff looks to address that issue in a timely manner, with Curry and Blalock leaders to take over as punter.
    “We’re working real hard on filling the punter spot,” Gentry said. “We’ve got our kicker back, senior Joey Helton, who’s a great kid. We’ve got about four kids that might be our punter. They’re working after practice every day.”
    Gentry went on to explain that the only weakness he sees that needs attention is the kickoff return lineup, which he believes will be much improved for 2016.
    “I think with Kadrian (McRae), or with Riley (Blalock), or with Colton Posey … I’ve got a lot of options and can put a lot of good kids back there,” Gentry said. “With more athletes out there that can run downfield, we can rest some players from our first-team.”
    With all the proverbial cogs in the machine, Gentry is keeping his outlook for the season both optimistic and realistic.
    “We’re dealing with a lot of kids that played last year and some didn’t, due to injury, that are going to be pretty good football players,” Gentry added. “You never know about a state championship. We’d like to win a conference title.”
    Murphy begins the 2016 season at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Hendersonville.