2023 season preview: Callaway is on the hunt for its second state title
Published 11:38 am Monday, August 21, 2023
The Callaway Cavaliers captured the first state title in 2020, not just in program history, but the first athletic state title in school history. The Cavaliers followed this up with a trip to the AA state semifinals in 2021 and a trip to the quarterfinals in 2022 as the team continues to set the bar high for what can be expected of them.
“Our guys have been working hard all summer and they are excited to be back out there playing football,” Callaway head coach Pete Wiggins said. “We can’t be focused on what we have accomplished in the past. This is a new time with new challenges in front of it.”
Expectations are high around this year’s Callaway team.The Cavaliers are bringing back a load of talent and have all the pieces to make another deep playoff run this season.
“We have a lot of guys coming back that have big game experience for us,” Wiggins said. “We have guys that have helped us win region titles and make deep playoff runs.”
After missing out on a region title in 2021, the Cavaliers once again claimed a region championship in 2022. Last season started with three consecutive losses before the team rattled off nine wins in a row including a perfect 6-0 stretch in region play. The Cavaliers proved they were top dog in their new region last year, but will now have a target on their back as all the other teams look to catch up.
“There are always things that you can improve on and be better,” Wiggins said. “We know that every team in the region is going to give us their best shot this year.”
Despite last season being another extremely successful season, it was actually the first time since 2014 the Cavaliers did not win double-digit games as the standards at Callaway have been set impossibly high by Wiggins. Winning region championships and making deep playoff runs has become the norm at Callaway.
With all the outside pressure on the program to compete for and win their second state title, Wiggins and the Cavaliers are just focused on the day-to-day grind to get better.
“We have to take care of ourselves and just continue to get better as individuals and as a team,” Wiggins said. “Each player on this team has to take care of his own business and as a team we are focused on getting better each day while keeping a positive attitude and approach to it.”
The Cavaliers will have the luxury of returning a two-year starter at quarterback in DeShun Coleman. As a junior he completed 57% of his passes for 1,213 yards and 10 passing touchdowns while adding 366 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns to his tally.
“I’ve been really proud of DeShun this summer,” Wiggins said. “He has worked really hard this season and we expect him to take the next step.
“He is a real leader for our football team.”
Coleman is a real leader for the team and the intangibles he brings to the team go far beyond his ability as a dual-threat quarterback.
Fellow senior Blake Harrington will provide cover at the position. He played sparingly last season and threw just four passes for 18 yards and a touchdown.
“I think DeShun and Blake bring a lot to our football team,” Wiggins said. “With both of them on our team I’m comfortable with how our quarterback position is.”
Callaway will have some turnover at running back as the team always seems to graduate a top quality running back before replacing him with another. The Cavaliers will have to replace Qua Whitfield, who ran for 1,252 yards and 21 touchdowns en route to being named offensive player of the year for region 5-AA.
Fortunately, the Cavaliers will have the second-leading rusher from last year’s team back in the fold. Jordan King, a senior, tallied 462 yards on the ground and 10 rushing touchdowns and will have an even bigger role this season.
“Jordan is 6 foot and 220 lbs and a really strong weight room guy with some real speed,” Wiggins said. “A big running back that can run like that is going to bring a lot to the table on Friday nights.”
The Cavaliers will also welcome the return of junior Tyren Buggs and senior Zai Hart. Both players are in line for bigger roles in the offense than they had a season ago. Hart finished last season with 302 rushing yards and four touchdowns while Buggs finished with 178 yards and a touchdown.
“Zai is more of a smaller back, but he is very quick and very shifty.” Wiggins said. “Buggs is more of a combination of both of them.”
Versatile senior Cam Tucker could see time at running back as well as wide receiver.
“Those four guys have taken a lot of snaps for us in the backfield this summer,” Wiggins said. “I believe we have several guys that can come and bring something a little different to the team.”
The Cavaliers will return their top two wide receivers from last season in receiving yards. Treyonn Tucker, a senior, finished last season with 21 catches for 284 yards and two touchdowns. Cam Tucker, a fellow senior, finished with 11 catches for 173 yards.
“Cam is a three-year starter for us whether it be on offense or defense,” Wiggins said. “He brings a lot of big game experience for us and he can play in a multitude of positions.”
Treyonn was second-team all-region as a junior.
Callaway will likely not be able to form their same trio of wide receivers from last season as junior Bryceton Sanders is battling through some injuries and might not be able to return to action this season. Sanders will be a big miss as he was named to the all-region second team as a sophomore last year.
Star cornerback Korey Jackson will play some at wide receiver like he did last season, finishing with nine catches for 61 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Kaiden James and sophomore Antravious Terry could also find themselves getting snaps at wide receiver sooner rather than later.
“We have several young guys that will get some opportunities at wide receiver for us,” Wiggins said.
The tight end position has been hit hard by some departures. Exavious Reed was the team’s leading receiver last season with 24 catches for 387 yards and four touchdowns. His absence will be notable, but so will the loss of Sam Williams, primarily a defensive lineman, who caught six passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns last season.
“Big E Reed and Sam Williams went on to play at a very high level with Southern Miss and Missouri and they were really good players for us,” Wiggins said.
Senior Abreon Ford is in line to take over as one of the starting tight ends.
“He has a big frame for a tight end and hopefully we will be able to use him in the same ways we have with Reed and Sam in the past,” Wiggins said.
Sophomore Nizerik Houston is also set to earn some playing time at the tight end position.
The Cavaliers will be returning three players along the offensive line — Avery Bartlett, Tyrone Fitten and Jojo Shuman. Fitten and Shuman started last season as the two starting guards and will return to lock down those positions again this season. While Bartlett will return as a starting tackle.
“All three work extremely hard and will give our offense some continuity,” Wiggins said. “All three guys have played in a ton of big moments for us.”
Bartlett and Shuman have taken on real leadership roles for the Callaway offense this season. Shuman led the team in pancake blocks last season with 46.
Junior Cody Yawn, sophomore Elijah Rowe, sophomore Josiah Garrett and junior Qua Wheeless will all figure into the offensive line equation as well, providing depth and possible pushing for a starting spot.
“Those are all guys that we have been rotating in as we try and find the best fit for our offensive line,” Wiggins said.
Yawn has had the most snaps at center this summer and could be in line to start there when the season comes around.
The defensive line lost four key pieces in Sam Williams and Elijah Gunn, both who went on to play Division I football, Dylan Stephens and Fred Tigner, who transferred. Three were named to all-region teams a season ago while Stephens was the iron man for the region and all four will be hard to replace.
The Cavaliers will be returning Camren Gunn, who excelled as a junior last season. Gunn led the team with 15 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks last season and was named to the all-region first team for his efforts. Big things are expected from him now that he is a senior.
“Cam Gunn is continuing his hard work this summer and was actually our ironman winner,” Wiggins said. “There is a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he can handle it because he has been in a lot of big moments and big games for us in the past.
“Right now, he is the anchor of our defense and we are expecting big things from him this season.”
Sophomore Nizerik Houston, sophomore Romell Willis and junior Tony Hardaway are all in line for starting roles or major rotational positions as the three have really impressed during the summer.
Brandon Sellers, Tyrone Fitten, Abreon Ford and Skylar Melton will provide depth along the defensive line.
“Those eight guys will be rotating in and out for our defensive line this year and we could not be more excited about the depth we have there,” Wiggins said.
Xae Anderson was named to the honorable mention list last season for his string play at middle linebacker. Anderson, just a sophomore, has already played a lot of snaps for the Cavaliers. He finished last season as the leading tackler with 52.
“He has played a lot of football for us despite him being so young,” Wiggins said. “He was our starting strong side linebacker as a freshman.”
The Cavaliers will have to replace his running mate as Deontause Brooks graduated in May. Brooks racked up 50 tackles, six tackles for a loss and three sacks and was also named to the honorable mention list for region 5-AA.
Cam Tucker, Jordan King and Trey Freeman will also see some time at linebacker as well. Tucker was used at linebacker and in the secondary last season as he racked up 44 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception. Freeman was also a key figure on last year’s defense, totaling 41 tackles.
Junior Kavius Leonard will likely get the nod at one of the starting safety spots where he lined up for the majority of last season. Leonard finished with 44 tackles and an interception last season. Leonard was named to the all-region second team as a sophomore.
At safety, senior Jonathan Freeman, senior D’Arcy Harris, junior Tyren Buggs will all figure into the equation.
Korey Jackson will be the team’s no. 1 cornerback this year. Jackson led the team with three interceptions and five pass breakups last season to go along with 37 tackles.
“Korey has a lot of experience for us and has played in a lot of big games,” Wiggins said. “He is a three-year starter for us and is a lockdown corner, but can also play safety. He can do a lot of things for us.”
Sophomore Jeremiah Dunn, sophomore Jeffrey Ellis and freshman Kaiden James are competing for the starting cornerback spot opposite Jackson. The trio has big shoes to fill as Karmelo Burton, last year’s starting cornerback, was named to the all-region first team alongside Jackson.
Greyson Batchelor, a senior, will be returning as the team’s primary kicker. He connected on 54 of 60 combined field goal and PATs last season en route to being named all-region first team kicker. He will also be taking on a new role this year as the team’s starting punter, replacing Ryan Seagle.
“Greyson is one of the guys that has a ton of experience for us,” Wiggins said. “He is up at the school on the weekend working to get better and has been doing that for a long time.
“The punting position will be new for him, but we are confident in him and he has put in the work this offseason.”
The Cavaliers lost their starting long snapper, Dylan Nation, who was a special player for the team. Who wins that role is up in the air heading into the season.