Lenoir City High School’s football team went into the season hoping for a fresh start following the appointment of Gary Dugger as head coach.
While the Panthers experienced a slow start to the season that ultimately led to again missing the playoffs, there are nonetheless positives to take from the first year under new leadership.
“We’re feeling really confident about going into next year,” Trey Wilhite, junior running back, said. “It’ll be a whole lot better, because its hard to come in and just completely change a culture that was kind of broken before.”
Dugger brought with him a new style of football for Lenoir City to learn, playing a non-traditional, quarterback-less offense known as “smashmouth football.” The learning period was evident for players. The team won just one game in the opening six.
But after winning the program’s first region game since 2018 in Week 7, the Panthers put together a three-game winning streak, which was only ended on the final day of the regular season against Powell High School, the defending Class 5A state champions.
“I think the encouraging thing is we finished a lot stronger than we started,” Dugger said. “As the season progressed we were constantly improving in all three phases. We got better as the season went on, and our guys fought in every game. … I think the kind of overall feel was that we were progressing and our kids were learning how we want to do things within our system, and it definitely showed as the season progressed.”
Lenoir City ended with a 4-6 record, 1-4 in the region, but Dugger said he felt that didn’t tell the full story. Over the 10 regular season games, the Panthers scored more points than they conceded, 257 to 218, and only two of their losses came by more than seven points.
Oak Ridge High School was the only region opponent to beat the Panthers by more than one score, with the other three losses were by seven, four and two points.
With a full offseason ahead and players familiar with the workings and demands of his system, Dugger said he expects the team to be even more competitive in year two.
“This offseason will be big for us,” he said. “Last offseason I kind of knew as soon as we got here, the style of football that we wanted to play, our kids weren’t built, physically, to stand up to a season of having to play that brand of smashmouth football. … Now that they understand physically what it’s going to take to play an entire season with our style of football, we’ll be able to incorporate a little bit more football stuff as we go. We can do some kind of football one-on-one stuff to where these younger guys are maybe a little bit further along and up to speed as we get into the football year.”
Younger players will be a big focus for the program heading into the offseason as a number of key roles will need to be replaced.
One of the team’s struggles this season came from an inability to figure out the best players for certain positions early on, with multiple personnel changes occurring throughout the poor opening stretch. By the time Dugger felt he had finally figured out his best team, plenty of seniors had become two-way starters.
Having struggled with personnel choices for most of the season, losing many of them could feel like a return to square one. However, Dugger said he has faith the younger players who did get reps will step up, and he has challenged them to claim starting spots in the offseason.
Wilhite said he was not concerned, as he has plenty of faith in his younger teammates.
“I feel great about that,” Wilhite said. “We have a lot of underclassmen that are ready to play. They’re ready to step up in practice, they’re always doing well.”
Despite constant changes, Dugger said he has seen enough to know the style of football he wants to play can be successful in East Tennessee.
Another issue that plagued the team all season were constant penalties, plenty of which came from adapting to a new system. Given the tightness of most of the contests this year, ridding the team of those mistakes could change several results from losses into wins.
Coming into an entirely new environment, Dugger said he had no set expectations for his first year and was pleased for the most part. While he said he never enjoys losing, and doing so six times was discouraging, he feels confident the program is taking strides in the right direction.
“I’m appreciative of the hard work our kids put in,” he said. “I’m excited and look forward to having a full offseason to continue to expand on the foundation that we laid this year and hopefully continue to trend upwards for our program and our schools and our city.”