Football Preview: Still adjusting to 6A, Independence seeks return to top tier

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After an ultra-successful close to its Class 5A tenure — a state title in 2015 and a return to the championship game a year later — Independence has struggled to replicate that performance over the past couple of years as a Class 6A competitor.

A rise to that top-tier level in 2019 isn’t out of reach, veteran coach Scott Blade said, as long as the Eagles follow one rule: Trust the system.

“We’ve got some good kids working hard at every position, and when we’re flying around and understand our responsibilities, we’re pretty good,” Blade said. “When we don’t, we’re a pretty average team.”

Average is certainly one way to describe the Eagles’ past two seasons overall. Both 2017 and 2018 saw glimpses of the dominance displayed the prior two years but polar opposites as well, resulting in back-to-back 6-6 finishes.

Each of the campaigns resulted in opening-round playoff victories and season-ending losses in the second round, last year to a Region 6-6A rival Brentwood squad that the Eagles had defeated during the regular season before suffering a disappointing overtime defeat in the rematch.

Much of the team’s success in 2017 and ’18 was sparked by the pure athleticism of skill players such as T.J. Sheffield and Isaiah Collier, both of whom graduated after last season.

Leading the charge to replace that explosive receiver tandem will be senior Chayce Bishop, a midseason transfer from Brentwood who will have to make the transition from a complementary role to a frontline performer.

For Bishop and others, filling whatever role the team dictates will be the key to success, according to Blade.

“Our superstar is gone, but we’ve gotten some good quality work in with some other guys this summer, and that can only help us during the season,” he said. “We will either be successful or not based on whether or not our guys trust the system and understand their role.”

Bishop and classmate Brian Pierce — who combined for 21 receptions, 212 yards and two touchdowns last fall — were not available on a consistent basis over the summer, but their absence allowed several capable players who can provide an offensive lift to emerge.

“Not having Bishop or Pierce during 7-on-7s has helped get some work in for other guys, but there are going to be some growing pains,” he said.

Blade is optimistic regarding the offensive line as the season looms. Senior Jett Katina anchors an experienced group up front.

That optimism stretches across the ball, as Blade and his coaching staff are very excited about the Eagles’ potential defensively.

“We have three guys returning on the defensive line,” Blade said, referring to seniors Carter Runnion, Caleb Lanford and Chase Robertson. “We like the linebackers (including Tommy Monohan and Zach Smith), too. We like our front seven a lot. The offensive line, too. We will have some guys who will see time on both sides, so we are preparing them for that.”

Looming as one of the team’s biggest pieces of the puzzle is quarterback Ethan Cash, who took over the full-time role for good in the middle of last season. Cash, who finished with more than 2,200 passing yards and 22 touchdowns with just five interceptions, will have an opportunity this season to be the leader of the team from the beginning of the year.

Blade knows he is capable of being among the best in the state.

“When he’s relaxed and going through his progressions, he’s as good as they come,” the coach said. “When he rushes in his mind, that’s when mistakes happen, so we have to keep him relaxed in the pocket and he will have a great year.”

This story and photos are included in the 2019 Williamson Herald High School Football Media Guide! Pick up your copy for stories like this, full schedules, predictions and more!

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