By TONY STINNETT, Courier Sports Editor
The prospect of a new season always offers optimism as players and coaches begin preparing for what lies ahead.
Football players at Cannon County have a positive outlook regarding their immediate gridiron forecast for the 2014 campaign. The Lions kick off the 2014 season against Middle Tennessee Christian at Schwartz Field, Aug. 22.
"Our team is getting better," sophomore quarterback Josh Walkup said. "We are trying to build a program. I have high hopes this year. I feel we will show improvement and be a better team."
Cannon County is in the midst of preseason practices. The Lions began working out, running drills and implementing offensive and defensive schemes during workouts last week. They will don full pads for the first time during this week's practices before leaving for team camp Sunday.
"For the first full week everything is going good," second-year Head Coach T.J. Daniel said. "We will know more when we get to put on pads."
One glaring difference from last year's Lions is visibly evident upon first glance. The 2014 Lions appear to be much stronger and bigger than when we last saw them.
"We have had a good offseason," Daniel said. "We are definitely bigger and stronger. We also have several upperclassmen so that's good. They have been good leaders and set a good example for the younger players."
One such veteran player is junior Bo Bryson, a two-year starter who figures to be a strong part of the team's plans on both sides of the football.
"We have worked hard through the offseason and we need to have a good preseason," Bryson said. "We believe we have good players. We just have to work hard, learn our assignments and stay healthy."
Cannon County has a good allotment of players out with 40 currently taking part in preseason practices. The roster is still limited so avoiding key injuries always is critical. The Lions are in good shape health wise. Senior A.J. Daniel is the only Lion currently unable to practice.
A.J. Daniel underwent knee surgery in April. His rehab is ahead of schedule but the talented athlete is still four-to-six weeks from putting on pads.
"I can sprint now, but not make the cuts," A.J. Daniel said. "I can do everything in the weight room except for lunges. I have been more surprised that I have been able to do all of the stuff in the weight room. It has helped me a lot as far as staying in shape. My recovery is ahead of schedule. I feel no pain."
While A.J., who figures to see time at receiver and running back on offense and at free safety on defense, admits frustration at not being able to get on the field with his teammates, he also likes what he sees from a different perspective.
"I think we are way better than last year," A.J. said. "Players know the offense better. We are more talented on the offensive and defensive lines. Things seem to be smoother."
Jeremy Litchford is another top-notch playmaker coming back from injury. Litchford suffered a broken collarbone last season but has enjoyed a successful rehab and is primed for a breakout season at corner. He was also one of the team's most electrifying return men prior to suffering the injury.
Senior Wilder Mankin also adds to what should be a strong defensive backfield in terms of returning players and experience. Technique and staying with assignments remains a key during preseason.
New seasons also mean new faces and the Lions welcome the return of senior playmaker Jake Hoskins. One of the best all-around athletes at Cannon County, Hoskins played his freshman season but did not participate as a sophomore or junior.
He is hoping to make up for lost time in 2014.
"I missed football," Hoskins said. "I knew we had a lot of pretty talented guys coming back. I felt like I could help that and help make us a better team."
Hoskins had a strong spring and summer and Coach Daniel says he likes what he has seen.
"Jake will find a way on the field," Coach Daniel said. "He does his part. He is just a well-rounded kid and he brings a lot to the team in several areas."
Hoskins and Walkup provide Cannon County with multiple options at quarterback. Walkup features a strong arm and can make most all of the throws. He must continue working on making good reads. Walkup saw action as a freshman that should help his growth in 2014.
Hoskins is a Wildcat-type quarterback with the ability to break down defenses with his feet, operate in the option, but he also has a strong arm and can beat secondaries with his arm.
Despite the long layoff, Hoskins says facets of the game have come back to him quickly.
"The biggest thing was mentally," Hoskins said. "Physically, I was in good shape. Mentally, I had to learn the playbook and catch up on learning new terminology different coaches have. That has been my focus. It has definitely come back to me quickly. I feel great about the team. We have good leadership, good solid seniors, and we have a good running game and a pretty solid defense. How A.J. plays when he comes back from his knee injury will make a big difference too."
Cannon County will participate in a preseason jamboree at Shelbyville High School Aug. 15. Opponent and time has yet to be determined.