A senior-laden group pushed Thomas Dale to their best playoff performance since they won the 2009 state championship under head coach Vic Williams. The Knights won three playoff games, defeating Woodbridge, C.D. Hylton, and Cosby before falling to Oscar Smith in the 6A state semi-finals.
“These guys had lots of experience and lots of reps,” said coach Kevin Tucker. “The guys knew what to expect, knew how to get to December football. Senior leadership is hard to replace.”
There’s a lot of talent to replace on the defense, which saw seven players move onto the next level. Linebacker Sam Stark is at Shepherd. Defensive backs Trent Williams (Richmond), Kyle Alexander (West Virginia State), Myles Plummer (Depaul Junior College) and Alonzie Carter (Fork Union) have all moved on. Offensive and defensive lineman Wayne Brown (Bluefield University) and Max Evans (Virginia State) have also moved up.
Offensively, Thomas Dale will send four players to the next level: including big time playmaker Brian Bullock (Lackawanna), Traquan Booker (Globe Tech), Mariel Jennings (Fork Union), and standout offensive lineman Snead (James Madison).
Thomas Dale got off to a 6-1 start last season and hit a skid when some injuries struck. After dropping three straight games to end the regular season, they won three straight playoff games.
Though starting quarterback Matt Lawton and wide receiver Gabriel McCollin have suffered injuries that will keep them out a while, the Knights are optimistic that they have the talent to plug the holes left and weather an injury storm that Tucker hopes will put them in a position to peak at the right time.
Name: Kevin Tucker
Record Last Year: 9-4
Years Coaching: 16
Years with School: 15 (7 as head coach)
Quarterback: Senior Matt Lawton (6-1, 180) may have been the most improved player in the old Central Region in the offseason. As a junior, he threw for 1,600 yards and 26 touchdowns. As a result, he picked up his first offer from Chowan. “When he does come back, I feel sorry for the opponent he plays,” said Tucker. Gabriel McCollin is the team’s back-up, but he’s also gone down, paving the way for two quarterbacks with contrasting styles to get playing time. Junior John Pierce was two-year starter on JV and is a traditional pro style quarterback. Senior Elijah Smith is an athlete who will try to make plays with his arm and feet. Tucker can go with a 1-2 punch, can play the hot hand given the situation.
Running Backs: While the quarterback situation is uncertain, there’s one thing that’s for sure: Thomas Dale has a ton of talent to tote the pigskin. Senior Max Oxendine (6-1, 215) rushed for over 600 yards and 12 TDs after taking the starting job and playing through nagging injuries. Another senior, Davonte Russell (5-10, 170), is a power back who rushed for over 100 yards and a long score in the playoffs against Woodbridge. Freshman Chris Tyree (5-9, 165) is one of the fastest players in the area, and he has picked up offers from Virginia Tech and Marshall. While Tyree may see carries, the Knights will also use him at receiver. Junior Colin Holmes (5-10, 185) ran for over 1,000 yards on JV last year and also figures in. Junior Davonte Chandler (6-0, 200) will play fullback.
Wide Receivers: Despite the loss of McCollin, Thomas Dale has two solid targets in line for receptions. Wearing No. 18 – a number worn by Desmond Frye (Virginia Tech) and Brian Bullock– is junior Gynai James (6-3, 190). Tucker said that the leading receiver on JV last year could be a big time receiver on varsity this year. Tall and lanky, he’ll be a big-play threat. Tight end Christian Faber (6-1, 225) returns from injury, and he is hoping to rekindle college interest. A big target, he catches and blocks well. When not playing quarterback, expect Elijah Smith to line up at wide out, and Tyree will see reps in the slot when he comes out of what will be a crowded, talented backfield.
Offensive Line: All-Conference tackle Tray Smith (5-10, 240, junior) will move to play left guard. Though he’s undersized, Tucker called him an old-school offensive lineman who doesn’t mind getting dirty. Senior Cory Thomas (6-2, 280) will line up at left tackle after being a reserve last season. Liam Griffin (6-0, 240), a disciplined ROTC member who’s in great shape, that will play center. Austin Booth (5-10, 245), who started some games last year, is a strong but small option. Booth squats 500 and benches 320. Junior Shane Carter (6-1, 255) will round out the line. Booth, Carter, and Smith are all returning starters with playoff experience.
Defensive Line: Willie Covin (6-3, 255) and Devin Williams (6-1, 240) are big, strong, powerful tackles, and they are returning starters. “They’re fast and cut up,” Tucker said. “They don’t mind putting their hand in the dirt and getting to business.” Alonzie Carter’s younger brother Shandarius (6-2, 190) returns to play defensive end as a speed-type rusher. Sean Rettzo (6-2, 195) was pulled up from JV for the playoffs last year and in Tucker’s words, is “long and rangy with a high motor.”
Linebackers: Replacing Stark’s production will be difficult, but the best part is that it can be a group effort for the Knights’ unit. Chandler and Tray Smith will start at inside linebacker. Both players have experience at the varsity level. Oxendine will anchor the group and may end up landing a college scholarship for his play at the position. Elijah Burns is a JV promote that can come up and play physical from the safety position to help against the run.
Defensive Backs: Russell and Tyree will both start at corner. Each one possesses speed close to the 4.3 range. Though there are big shoes to fill at safety, Tucker said that A.J. Lazaro may have the skill-set to plug the hole. Desmond Frye (VT), C.J. Reavis (Marshall) and Trent Williams (Richmond) have previously manned the position. “While he may not have a D-1 future, he might be a D-3 All-American,” said Tucker. Lazaro has impressed in camp and early scrimmages.
Special Teams: Tucker said he had been impressed with kicker Austin Cezer. “He’s put in the work,” Tucker said. “He’s hitting field goals from 40 plus and averaging 35-40 yards a punt.” This continues a line of great high school kickers dating back to Anthony Prevost (Hampton) and Plato Eliades (Bridgewater).
Player to Watch: Max Oxendine (running back, linebacker)The nephew of Thomas Dale alum and NFL running back Ken Oxendine, Max has proven himself to be a valuable commodity for Thomas Dale on both sides of the pigskin. A three-year starter on defense and two-year starter on offense, he also plays special teams. “He’s our guy this year, he’s our man,” Tucker said. “We’re asking a lot of him but I think he’s ready. The kid has put in that work to become a leader.” Oxendine will serve as the team’s speaking captain for the second consecutive season, a rare honor for an underclassman.