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Pioneers finding pass catchers
Aiden Cummings.jpg
Pioneer junior Aiden Cummings could be a threat down the field from his tight end position. Warren County may not throw a lot, but the options outside have the potential to make plays.
Isaak Beasley makes a grab during drill work Tuesday.

At its height of success, the Warren County High School football team lit up scoreboards behind an overwhelming ground game. New coach Matt Turner figures to try to return the team to a ground-and-pound attack, but it won’t be for lack of options on the outside.

The Pioneers feature a solid group of wide receivers and tight ends, all who have flashed during the last two weeks of 7-on-7 sessions in Tullahoma and Chattanooga. Led by rising senior Eli Buchanan, the Warren County passing attack could surprise teams if defenses put too much focus on stopping the run.

Darek Elrod, a prolific passer during his time at QB for the Pioneers in 1993-94, is tasked with coaching the wide outs. Elrod is also helping with tight ends, as is offensive line coach Isaac Slatton.

Elrod has had a chance to see his group grow over the summer as the team participates in summer passing contests. Buchanan, who had eight catches last season, has taken a leading role. The senior has plenty of game experience and has used his time to hone his craft while also bringing other players along.

The receiver rotation will also feature Joseph Lanier, Malachi Rippy, Joey Burgess, Hayden Black, Jihaad Middleton, Isaak Beasley, Matthew Meeks and Christian Tigue. The tight end group features Aiden Cummings, Aaron Ashburn and Bryan McNulty.

Here’s a 3-2-1 breakdown of the pass catchers.

Three observations

There are new kids on the block – Burgess and Rippy are rising seniors who haven’t played football before. There’s a good chance they’ll make up for lost time this season. Burgess, a longtime baseball player, has flashed in workouts, showing sure hands and good route running. Rippy has the prototypical build the play outside, with his big frame making him a potential red-zone threat for jump balls.

Helping the ground game will be vital – The wide receivers won’t just be decoys this season. Elrod expects his sure-handed group to make plays when the ball comes their way and be physical when it doesn’t.

“Blocking will be a major role for our receivers. Our ground game will be a focal point,” said Elrod. “They have to be ready when their number is called to make a play when we do go to the air.” 

Tight ends can’t be missed – It would have to be a really errant pass to miss this year’s group of tight ends. 

Cummings, Ashburn and McNulty are all over 6-foot-tall and don’t mind going up in traffic. During a Tuesday practice, Cummings made a leaping catch 30 yards downfield, then barrel-rolled over the goal line.

Two questions

Can the route runners stay focused? – Patience will be tested most nights for pass catchers. The Pioneers have a lot of mouths to feed in the backfield, so mixing in passes may not be a priority most nights. The test will be going full speed every play, selling the defense on the threat that the ball could come out.

Will Buchanan have a running mate? Despite having just nine career catches, Buchanan is easily the most experienced player of the group. The rest, many getting their real taste of varsity football, are unknown quantities. All have skills, but nobody will know for sure if it translates from the practice field until kickoff against DeKalb County. 

One prediction

The Pioneers are going to catch a defense sleeping this year. After a season where the longest passing play was 29 yards, the Pioneers will have at least two 50-plus yard passing plays this season. 

This is part three of a 10-part breakdown of the Pioneer football program. Offensive lineman will follow on Sunday, July 27.