The Lenoir City High School Panthers football team has experienced several personnel changes this offseason.
Former McMinn County and McMinn Central offensive coordinator Derrick Vestal has been named the Panthers’ new offensive coordinator following Matt Coe’s decision to step down at the end of last season.
“We tried last year to get him on staff, and just like Dustin Peels (LCHS defensive coordinator), we were looking for a young guy that’s intelligent, energetic, someone who’s going to help give us new ideas and new direction,” Jeff Cortez, LCHS head football coach, said. “At the same time, we wanted someone to be able to work within the framework of the things we’ve already been doing. Derrick’s definitely the guy.”
Vestal, 34, graduated from McMinn County in 2004, where he proved a dynamic quarterback for the Cherokees. He returned to his alma mater in 2009 and served as an assistant coach until 2012.
Vestal spent the next two seasons as an assistant coach at Meigs County before returning to McMinn County to serve as the Cherokees’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
He then became the offensive coordinator at McMinn Central in 2018 and spent last season as the defensive backs coach at Walker Valley.
“I kind of took a step back and wanted to take it easy for a little bit to kind of lighten my mental load and all that stuff,” Vestal said. “Coach Cortez and I had conversations for probably two years and whenever the opportunity arose and we were able to put the rubber to the road and see what would happen, I jumped all over it.”
Vestal said the transition has been smooth.
“That’s a big thing for me is that the coaches are welcoming and you don’t feel like an outsider and automatically feels like I’ve known these guys for a long time,” he said. “We get along well, and I think that we’ve come up with good schemes on both sides of the ball that are going to be something to help us be successful. These are different kids than I’ve ever coached before. I’ve had groups of kids that are different styles. These guys right here, they’re a good group, they work hard and they want to be good. That makes it a lot easier to coach them when they want to better than what they were.”
Vestal primarily used the Wing-T offense at McMinn County and McMinn Central but plans to use an offense that best suits the Panthers.
“I love the Wing-T but as you develop as a coach and as a player, you’ve got to learn something else,” he said. “I took that and ran with whoever was going to teach me. Coaching with a Wing-T background has always helped me because I understand the interior part of it, so I think you can get more creative with the outside portion of it. If you’re no good with your front seven, you’re in a bind anyway. I’ve advanced it to learning the Tony Franklin system and then being a spread guy and doing a lot of stuff.”
The offseason has proven difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic as teams are still not allowed to have contact or physical practices.
Players have been charged to learn the offense on their own.
“We’ve kind of relied a lot on them to learn it from Hudl, and we’ve asked them to look at stuff and we’re relying on them to actually do it and follow through with it,” Vestal said. “You can tell a lot of them have. I think another thing, too, is we take advantage of the time we have when we’re able to get together and talk offense because we’re to the point, no beating around the bush. We work hard on getting the terminology together, and I’ll text them sometimes and say, ‘Hey, what does this concept mean?’”
Lenoir City will look to replace several offensive starters from last year’s team, including All-County quarterback Mason Stanley, running back Cody Wilhite and tight end Jonah Rittenhouse.
The quarterback competition remains wide open, but Vestal has been impressed with what he’s seen from players such as junior Zane Ward and sophomore Gavin Vincil.
“I think, honestly, we’re going to rely on our offensive line, but it’s going to be a transition from quarterback,” Vestal said. “Again, I’m new so everybody’s new to me. We’ve got three guys, four guys that are back there that are showing they want to be a Friday night player. We can only have one quarterback, so those guys are already OK with saying, ‘Yeah, I can move out to receiver or I can help us out on defense.’ Relying on those front guys and really just relying on our receiving corps to be focused on what we’re doing.”