Brian Hampton has been a master in turning struggling football programs around. He took a North Surry High football team, that was 1-10 in his first year, and he led that team to 15 wins over the next two seasons. He's followed that up with similar results at Ashe County.
Hampton, now in his third year (11-13 record), led the Huskies to their first winning season since 2008, and a tri-championship in the Mountain Valley 1A-2A Conference (the Huskies shared the title with Starmount and North Wilkes)---its first conference title since 2007, and the third in school history.
"It was a great feeling for the kids, especially," Hampton said. "We've got a banner hanging in the gym, and we're proud of what we accomplished. But we can't live off that. We have a lot of work to do. That was last year, this a new season, and we haven't done anything yet."
But the Huskies (7-5 last season), who lost the left side of their offensive line and a talented running back in Jonathan Cox to graduation, return a veteran team, led by 23 seniors---the most seniors Ashe County has had in Hampton's tenure. Seven starters return as well.
"We basically will have five new starters on the offensive line," Hampton said, "But we've got size up there, and that's going to be a huge plus for us."
Ashe County's offensive line, including the tight end, will weigh in at 249 pounds a man on average. And most of that size will come on the left side of the line, led by junior Austin Blevins (6-foot-3, 285 pounds) at left guard and senior Hunter Scott (6-6, 298) at left tackle. Senior Nathaniel Johnson (6-2, 250) moves from right tackle to center this season; junior Kendall Richardson (6-2, 245), who also plays basketball and will handle the kicking chores, will play right guard; senior Josh Goodman (6-4, 230) will take over at right tackle.
Senior Lucas Jones (6-2, 230) and senior Jacob Carlton (6-1, 245) add depth to the offensive line on the right side. Seniors Bradley Lucas (6-2, 200) and Kaleb Sexton (6-0, 230) are the tight ends. Lucas is the more athletic of the two. He can split out, run good routes, and he can block; Sexton is the more physical of the two, and he's a very good blocker.
"The key was Nathaniel agreeing to make the switch," Hampton said. "He was hesitant at first, but he made the move because he knows it will help our team. He's never snapped before, but he's a smart guy and he's our vocal leader on the offensive line. He's looked real good in camp, so far."
The Huskies will showcase a multiple offense this year, led by senior quarterback Connor Bowers (6-2, 185), a two-year starter and a three-year varsity player, and a talented receiving corps. Junior Mason McNeill (6-1, 170), who led Ashe County with 36 receptions last season, including six touchdown grabs, returns along with senior Jacob Blevins (6-1, 190), who is the fastest player on the team (he also holds the school record in track in the long jump), and senior Jacob Worley (5-10, 150) are Ashe County's top returnees at wide out.
"Those guys give us some size on the outside, and they can all catch the ball," Hampton said. "And Connor has really put in the time this off-season getting stronger in the weight room and learning the offense. His passing has really improved. But the big thing for us has been the addition of Drew Piscopo.
"Drew played for me at North Surry. He was my quarterback, and he went on to college football my alma mater at Emory & Henry. He played both quarterback and receiver in college. He's a first year guy, and he's works for Skyline Communications (near West Jefferson), and he's been able to work around his work schedule to help us out. He's an outstanding coach. He's done a great job working with our receivers and our quarterbacks. The guys have picked up his scheme real well."
The biggest concern is at running back, where the Huskies feature two sophomores in Colin Ellis (5-9, 165) and Skye sullivan (6-1, 205). Senior Hunter Barnes (5-10, 172) will see some time at running back, but he's more valuable to the Huskies on defense.
"He's our rover, our strong safety, and the backbone of our defense in the secondary," Hampton said. "Don't get me wrong, he'll get some carries, but we really need him more on defense. He's the guy that gets us lined up right. And I want to two platoon our people as much as possible to keep them fresh.
"But it's definitely going to be a challenge for our sophomores back there. Physically, they can play. The question is, are they mentally ready to play at this level. Colin is a shifty type back. He won't run away from anybody. Sullivan is big and powerful. He has lots of potential."
Defensively, the Huskies will be just as big and physical. The Baker twins, seniors Jason and Shawn, lead the way. Jason (5-9, 280), will start at defensive tackle, Shawn, (5-9, 210) starts at linebacker. Jason Baker will be joined by junior Luis Ramos (6-4, 265) at defensive tackle; senior Brandon Blevins (6-2, 210), a very strong man and a tireless worker in the weight room, and junior Josh Hamilton (6-0, 230) will start at defensive end.
Scott, junior Ross Summey (5-10, 250), Jacob Sawyer and Cody Blevins add depth to the defensive line.
"Luis is ultra quick, Brandon and Josh have great motors," Hampton said. "That group has size, they're aggressive and they give us a lot of quickness up there. I'm really pulling for Brandon to have a great season at defensive end. He's been a varsity player for three years, but he's also been hurt most of the time. The guy has put a lot of time in the weight room. He was banged up most of his sophomore year, and he had a nagging wrist injury last year. He's healthy, so far, and I hope he can stay healthy all year.
"The Bakers are mobile and mean. They're tough kids, and they were our anchors last season. I consider them the heart and soul of our defense. The key is keeping them healthy."
Sophomore Tristan Jones (5-11, 175) takes over at middle linebacker. He'll be flanked on the strong side by Lucas and on the weak side by Shawn Baker.
"Tristan isn't that big, but he's a football player," Hampton said. "He has a knack for the game, and he makes the proper reads. The guy just makes plays, that's what earned him the starting job."
Junior Alex Richardson (6-4, 210) adds depth at linebacker, but he's injuried and the shelf at the moment. The secondary is led by Barnes at strong safety and senior Evan Owen (6-0, 145), the most versatile player in the secondary, who suffered a broken collarbone on the first day of summer workouts. They'll be joined by baseball phenom Joseph Lowder (6-0, 180), a junior, at free safety, and seniors Kenny Reed (6-0, 165) and Zach Outen (6-0, 175) at the cornerback spots.
McNeill, junior Sam Hudler (6-2, 175), and Jacob Blevins will also see time in the secondary.
"Our defense was the strength of our team last season," Hampton said. "It kept us in games when our offense struggled. We don't have a lot of experience back on the defensive side with two starters back (the Baker twins), but we're athletic and big, and we have some quickness. We had a scrimmage Monday night, and I was pleased with what we did."
Kendall Richardson will handle all the kicking chores, but Hampton is still searching for a punter and a long snapper. Lucas and the now injuried Alex Richardson are competing for the long snapper job.
"The punting job is up in the air right now," Hampton said. "Connor (Bowers) or Kendall (Richardson) could do it, or we could let Mason (McNeill) do it. We're working on it. That's what preseason camp is for. But I'm excited for the kids, and our coaching staff. But I also consider this to be my toughest year as a coach.
"The goal is getting these guys ready to play, and to exceed our expectations. Starmount is the team to beat, no doubt. (Starmount coach) Scott Johnson does a great job, and he does things the right way. They beat us last year, and as far as I'm concerned, the championship runs through Boonville in the Mountain Valley Conference."
The Huskies open the season at home against North Surry on Friday, September 22.
2014 Ashe County Schedule
August 22 NORTH SURRY 7:30
August 29 @ Watauga 7:30
September 5 RJ REYNOLDS 7:30
September 12 @ Hibriten (Endowment Game) 7:30
September 19 Open
September 26 * ALLEGHANY 7:30
October 3 * @ Wilkes Central 7:30
October 10 * @ West Wilkes 7:30
October 17 * EAST WILKES (Homecoming) 7:30
October 24 * NORTH WILKES (Senior Night) 7:30
October 31 * @ Starmount 7:30
November 7 * @ Elkin 7:30
HOME Games in CAPS
* Denotes Mountain Valley Conference games