Craig Harris/Macon County Times Macon County High senior quarterback Jon Mark Gammons hands off to junior fullback Dylan Chupp.

Craig Harris/Macon County Times

Macon County High senior quarterback Jon Mark Gammons hands off to junior fullback Dylan Chupp.

At this time a year ago, the Macon County High School football program was in the midst of a crash course of learning.

Entering this season, the Tigers feel much more settled as the program enters its second season under the direction of head coach Kyle Shoulders.

"We spoke as a staff about how that in practice, it was always installing this new concept, this new scheme or whatever it may be (last year)," Shoulders said. "This year, we can run through it. We all are comfortable with what our responsibilities are. We don't have to teach what to do. We're able to focus on particular techniques. We are so far in depth offensively and defensively now to where that last year, we hadn't hit on these things until week 6 or 7.

"We have a large amount of things we do offensively and defensively. For our guys to be so mentally prepared at this time of year is phenomenal. We are able to refine certain techniques and fundamentals. It can be a more relaxed atmosphere."

Senior Jon Mark Gammons returns at quarterback to lead Macon County's wing-T offense. Gammons completed 58 of 128 passes last season for 862 yards, tossing 5 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

"He has excellent leadership qualities," Shoulders said. "We joke with him on a daily basis that we're going to hire him as an assistant coach here as soon as he graduates. He really is like a coach on the field.

"He's been throwing the ball exceptionally well. He feels much more comfortable in our system this year being in it for a year. He really played well down the stretch last year. We expect him to start the season off much like he ended the season last year."

Senior Isaac Belton was a starting wingback last season, but he's expected to be at fullback this year. Juniors Logan Whittemore and Dylan Chupp could also see action at fullback.

Belton rushed for 263 yards last season, and Whittemore picked up 310 yards and scored two touchdowns.

"He's the heart and soul of our team and what we stand for," Shoulders said of Belton. "We're a blue-collar team with an exceptional work ethic. He brings it every day. There's never a question of effort. It's not something we have to coach with him. Whatever deficiencies he has, those are eliminated with his effort. It seems like he's always around when big plays are happening."

Belton could also see action at wingback. Junior Ethan Jenkins and sophomore Cameron Houston are expected to start at wingback, with junior Hunter Herron and freshman Nate Green also options there.

Jenkins -- an all-region selection as a sophomore -- rushed for a team-leading 441 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, and he also caught 15 passes for 185 yards.

"In our skill positions, I'm comfortable with those guys taking care of their responsibilities and making big-splash plays when we call their number," Shoulders said. "You talk about all those guys, and there's not one that a team can focus on. That makes the other ones so much more valuable. They can't zone in on one guy. That's going to give us a chance to be competitive in most of our football games that we play in."

Senior Cameron Mercer -- a first-year player -- is expected play a factor at wide receiver.

Junior Landon Whittemore was the Region 3-4A Most Outstanding Tight End a year ago. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound standout caught 11 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown, and he will also start in the secondary.

"You're talking about a defensive end body that has got the ability and ball skills to play in the secondary," Shoulders said. "There's a lot of interest (from college programs) in him because of those attributes. You're talking about 6-4, 215 pounds who moves like he does ... and not only that, but he's a physical kid.

"He can cause mismatches from time to time, whether in the passing game or blocking on the perimeter. He definitely gives us an advantage just from his skill set."

Classmate Wesley Carver -- who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 190 pounds -- will also see action at tight end.

Junior Dylan Hesson is expected to start at center, and senior guard Levi Borders will be a three-year starter and was also an all-region performer last season. Senior Rodney Tuck is also expected to start at guard, though sophomore Colton Tuttle will see action there as well.

Seniors Josh Howell -- another returning starter -- and Jacob Phelps will start at tackle, with junior Jake Partin and senior Hunter Thurman providing depth there. Howell was the starting center last season.

"Borders and Howell started last year," Shoulders said. "Borders is conducting that offensive line and really our defensive line too. He's an exceptional leader and makes sure we're lined up correctly. He can walk the walk, so when he talks it, the guys around him listen."

Senior Ryan Underwood is back at placekicker after making four field goals and 15 of 16 point-after touchdown (PAT) kicks last season.

"Last year, he was a huge asset for us," Shoulder said. "At White House Heritage, where we needed a big win to get us on track, in the first half, he had a hand in almost every score. I think he hit two field goals, and he's automatic as far as our PATs. He's definitely a weapon who can give us a chance to score every time we get in the red zone."

Classmate Brady Flores is expected to punt, and Belton will handle the long-snapping responsibilities.

Jenkins will return both kickoffs and punts, and Houston will also be deep for kickoff returns.

Tuck will anchor the Tigers' 50 defensive front at nose tackle.

Borders, Thurman and freshman Mason Swindle are options at defensive tackle. Howell and Partin could also factor into the mix on the interior defensive line.

Tuck and Borders made 39 and 27 tackles, respectively, as juniors, and Tuck also had three quarterback sacks.

Carver, Chupp and Logan Whittmore will also see extensive action at defensive end.

Carver made 26 tackles last season.

Junior Austin Robinson and sophomore Dawson Long are expected to start at linebacker, with Chupp and Hesson to provide depth there.

"Our linebackers can run," Shoulders said. "That's was one of our main goals coming into the offseason, finding guys who can run and make plays on the perimeter. One of our linebackers (Robinson) is probably one of the strongest kids on our team, and he's probably the fastest kid on our team. Then, you have another track kid in Long who can run and who is strong.

"We feel good about that core group. Then, we have Dylan Hesson who can play linebacker. Those ends and linebackers ... it's a pretty solid crew for us."

In the secondary, Houston and Jenkins are expected to start at cornerback, with Belton and Landon Whittmore at safety.

Belton -- the 3-4A Co-Most Outstanding Defensive Back -- led the team with 78 tackles last season, and Landon Whittemore finished with 28 tackles (with 10.5 of those resulting in a loss of yardage).

Junior Ty Lowhorn is expected to see action at cornerback, and Mercer and Thurman could get snaps at safety.

"It's something we wanted to address ... we had some guys could run at linebacker last year," Shoulders said of the team speed on defense. "Branson Henry ran well. Logan Malotte ran well. We feel like we can pursue the football in a way that will display our effort on Friday night. Kids may give effort sometimes, but their lack of speed may not make that evident. We feel like people will see that we can move to the football defensively."

Shoulders' biggest concern is depth.

"Some of the skill guys, I'm not concerned about, because they are in such good shape," Shoulders said. "In our situation, we have our two linebackers who are one-way guys. Our defensive ends can be one-way guys. Tuck and Borders are probably going to have to be two-way guys. That's the unfortunate thing, but we do have quality depth behind them to give them breathers.

"Staying healthy is important. One thing we have that is valuable is that we have quality depth. We don't have a great quantity of depth, but we have quality depth. We're in a good situation to where our twos ... we feel as comfortable with them as our ones. That relieves some of my concern about those guys playing both ways. The problem is the quantity of depth. That's something that obviously concerns you if you get an injury or two. Then, maybe that kid doesn't have a back-up."

Shoulders has been encouraged by the work that he's seen in the offseason and preseason.

"It's been so repetitive and so ingrained in them that they're ready for it to start," Shoulders -- the 3-4A Co-Coach of the Year in 2018 -- said. "They need to go against someone in a different color jersey. We had a gauntlet to go through in the scrimmage schedule. They are excited ... they're really excited.

"We want to keep football exciting. How we can keep football entertaining, something to look forward to? They're finally getting to look forward (to the season starting). I am excited. I want to see their work from January until now pay off. There's no greater reward for a coach than to see kids transform themselves like some of them have ... and to prepare mentally the way they have, to display great work ethic for months and to reap the benefits from that. There's nothing more discouraging as a coach then to see them work and then not give great effort and not reap those benefits. That would be discouraging."

The Tigers finished 5-6 last season, placing second in Region 3-4A and earning a home playoff game before ending their season with a 42-7 loss to Nolensville in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs.

Stone Memorial is the defending region champion, though Livingston Academy -- which placed third in 3-4A last season -- could be the favorite this season.

"Livingston has three preseason all-state players," Shoulders said. "They're loaded. They have everybody (returning) from last year. They have (Will) McDonald at quarterback, and he has his main receiving corps back. This is supposed to be the year for Livingston. Stone Memorial was at the top of the food chain last year. They return quite a bit as well. The departure of the (Thomas) Arnold kid will hurt. I've heard nothing but glowing things out of DeKalb County. They have supposedly been on fire in the 7-on-7s. They have a gunslinger at quarterback (Axel Aldino). They have the (Eli) Cross kid who plays on the offensive and defensive lines who just recently committed to Tennessee Tech. They have the tools to be good as well. Cumberland County just hired a new coach (Eric Belew). He's brought some high energy into that program and trying to reboot that. We expect a highly-improved Cumberland County this year."

Macon County opens play by hosting Smith County on Friday. The Tigers open region play on Sept. 20 with a contest at Cumberland County.