By Bill Sorrell
After a day cleaning up Collierville High School’s football field, Dragon Head Coach Mike O’Neill invited players to his home for pool play.
A cookout and swim party were part of the splashing good time.
“I think they took eight inches of water out of my pool. These kids like to have fun,” said O’Neill.
What was fun last year was the first round of the 6A playoffs. The Dragons defeated Wilson Central, a team that ended the regular season with an 8-2 record.
“We were off the radar. A lot of people just look at the record. We beat them four quarters, up and down the field,” said O’Neill.
Collierville was the only 6A municipal school to get a first-round playoff victory.
The next week at Cordova, O’Neill and his staff put together “a great game plan” and came within a snap of beating the Wolves.
“I think that would have completely shocked the state. Our kids never gave up. They played their hearts out against a great Cordova team. We had an opportunity to win. It went down to the last play of the game. How we ended last year was the high point,” said O’Neill.
Collierville finished 4-8 but was 6-6 on the field. Two wins were forfeited after self-reporting that a player did not finish one of his summer school classes.
“It was a complete oversight,” said O’Neill. “We had to change some policies in our athletic department to make sure these kids are eligible.”
This season, Collierville has the opportunity to win every game, according to offensive guard Austin Kelley.
“We’ve got the firepower to match up with anyone. Our off-season focused on accountability and every man doing their job. I think that mentality will help us in close games.”
The Dragons have an explosive quarterback in senior Matt Connors, who can throw “a great” football said O’Neill.
“He has been working extremely hard in the weight room and ended the season extremely strong,” he said.
During the off-season, Connors focused on speed, footwork inside and outside of the pocket, improved arm strength and attended multiple camps to become better.
“I am most excited about our offense this year. We have more athleticism across the board than we ever have and you should see a lot of explosiveness,” said Connors, who is being recruited by Southern Illinois and the University of Tennessee at Martin.
Collierville defensive end Carson Rees said, “Matt is one of the best quarterbacks in the county with a very fast receiving corps.”
Connors will direct a high tempo spread offense.
“We run some tight end and get into a two-back set (two by one, two by two empty),” said O’Neill, who in his sixth season as head coach.
Rees, who listens to heavy metal rock music before games, said, “As for playmakers, I think the whole receiving core along with tailbacks and quarterback will light up the scoreboard as long as they get the protection they need from the line.”
O’Neill said of Connors, “Hands down, the kid can play.”
Last season, Connors passed for 1,805 yards, completing 115 of 225 passes and 15 touchdowns. He completed 31 passes of more than 20 yards and his quarterback rating was 106.5. He rushed for 136 yards and seven touchdowns.
Said Connors, “The offense clicks, the line and running backs work together and I’m in tune with my receivers. The defense plays for one another. Both sides hold everyone accountable.”
He expects to limit mistakes while providing “excellent execution.”
“We have to make sure that we are scoring points on offense so that our defense can play relaxed and make stops. I have to make sure that I don’t overdo anything and get the ball to my wide outs and receivers because they are all capable of making big plays,” he added.
The Dragons, who have 28 seniors, have skilled players with athleticism. Marcus Bersoza and Justin Stonework are wide receivers, Auggie Burke is halfback, Zach Jackson receiver. Cole Johnson and Peyton Murphy are running backs. Kelley started last season.
“Cole is one of the most athletic kids I have ever seen,” said Rees.
Johnson, who plays on both sides of the field, scored 66 points last season including seven rushing touchdowns. He rushed for 231 yards. He made 42 tackles, had two interceptions, two kickoff returns for touchdowns and 486 yards in kickoff yardage, averaging 27 yards each kickoff return. He returned five punts of 50 yards and was first team All-Region 8-6A.
“Our skill positions will be our strength,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill said that Murphy adds depth.
Photo by Roger Cotton
“I think we will be able to run the football with Cole,” he said.
The offensive line lost four to graduation.
“They are very small compared to most linemen but I think their speed makes up for some of it,” said Rees.
The defense has to replace eight and will have a hybrid split 4/slash 4-3 combination with multiple coverage.
“Youth is a theme right now. We did some really good things at the end of the season. We have to have that winning mentality early and build throughout the season before we get into league play,” said O’Neill, whose team will play neighbor St. George’s on Oct. 13.
“This year, our strength is going to be our defensive backs,” he continued. “We will have to have some linebackers and defensive linemen to show up. We have to find 11 guys who are going snap to whistle.”
The defensive backs are Virgil Pryor, Kobe Perkins and Johnson. Three defensive starters return, Rees, Johnson at free safety and Pryor at corner.
Perkins is a centerfielder for Collierville’s baseball team. He played football his freshman year but not his sophomore year.
“He is very athletic,” said O’Neill, who played baseball at The University of Memphis. “Some of the best athletes at our school are baseball players and I am looking for every opportunity to get them to play football. Sports is challenging but this year we have been able to get roughly 10 baseball players to play football and that has been extremely positive.”
O’Neill will rely on other defenders.
“Adrian Anderson is another kid at cornerback who is going to give us a look along with Jordan Wright. We do have some depth there with Triston Wiggins (safety), Kyle Colwick (safety). We are excited about that,” said O’Neill.
Pryor, who listens to hip hop before games and eats cookies, has developed his leadership by seeing his teammates “want to be great.”
“It pushes me,” he said. “I would love to see Collierville win in the playoffs again.”
Connors, who had mononucleosis for five games last season, said, “I expect a big year. There is no reason why a deep run in the playoffs, and even a state championship, is not possible.”
Kelley, who has worn the same sweatshirt before every game since his freshman year and is president of the Grillers Club whose members provide the concessions at games, said that he reinforces the same message each game.
“I need to lay everything I have on the field. It is critical to have faith and trust of your teammates and mine have accepted my leadership from the beginning,” he said.
The Dragons lost leaders last year in linebacker Tyler Garvey who is walking on at Memphis. Garvey led the team in tackles with 72, including 46 solo. He had lost yardage of 20.5, recovered two fumbles, was first team offense All-Region 8-6A and was MVP of the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl All-Star game.
Defensive lineman Devan Reynolds also graduated. He had 70 tackles, lost yardage of 40 yards, was in on three sacks and was second team defense All-Region 8-6A.
Running back Peyton McKay graduated as well. He rushed for 583 yards and scored seven rushing touchdowns and caught two touchdowns.
Center John Hassell graded 90 percent in all 12 games. He was first-team All-Region 8-6A and played in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl All-Star game.
Also playing in college this year from last season’s team are Elijah Holcomb at Hendrix College and Justin Ragin at Jackson State.
Dylan Scott, who was first team all-region last season and is now punting at Cumberland University, made 13 of 17 field goals in 2016 including his longest of 45 yards. He made 41 of 44 extra points and scored a team-high 80 points. He had 52 punts that netted 1,688 yards for a 35.71-yard average. His longest punt was 56 yards. His kickoffs averaged 57.93 yards and he finished his high school career making 37 of 45 field goals. He was invited to play in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl All-Star game.
There are four players battling to take over Scott’s duties, including Caleb Myers and Colton Mueller at placekicking and soccer player Max Carmon.
“He has a big strong leg. It looks like he is going to do kickoffs for us,” O’Neill said of Carmon. “Punting is wide open. My backup quarterback Mitch Austin has a chance he could be our punter. We graduated an incredible punter in Dylan. We did some recruiting on the soccer team. We have a really good soccer team and they provide some pretty good legs.”
Among the most improved players are Murphy, Keyveon Anderson (receiver), Datrion Holpe (defensive end).
All three have worked “extremely hard,” said O’Neill.
“What excites me most about this team is their ability to compete,” he said. “Since I have been here, team speed has never been better. However, the size upfront has never been smaller. There is trade off. There are going to be some challenges this year but I am excited about our athletic ability. I think we have the ability to make some noise.
“I like the direction we are going,” he continued. “We want to hit on all cylinders.”
Many of the players certainly have in the classroom.
“We have got quite a bit of kids in the 30 and plus ACT club. Academically, across the board, they are very strong. That is very important to us. Our school is academically driven,” said O’Neill.
Connors made a 32 both times he took the ACT and has a 33 super score. He wants to pursue a career that focuses on sports. He plans to major in sports administration n college.
“Because of football I am a very determined and hardworking person,” said Connors. “Football has made me tougher than anything else could have. I am proud of the way I carry myself and live my life.”
He was one of the players who taught a football camp for first through eighth graders this summer.
O’Neill looks at the opportunities each season brings and the ever-present challenges.
“The biggest part of this program is to create productive young men when they leave this program. Winning goes with that. These kids understand what it takes to work with each other, to handle authority, the sort of things that are real-life skills. That is what drives me.”
What drives Kelley is belief.
“I believe the sky is the limit with this team and we’re fully capable of going the distance.”