WHITEWRIGHT — A month into last season, the Tigers already knew they were on the right track. They had already won more games than the previous year and their confidence was starting to rise.
As Whitewright proved it could play with just about anyone — half of the losses were by single digits and they played the district champion better than the rest of 9-3A (II) — locking in the last couple of pieces was the only thing left to do.
"That was huge, being able to compete with everyone. We had to get back that competitive edge around here," Tigers head coach Kevin Wiggins said. "Who’s going to go in and play with confidence and play fast? They realize they can compete with anybody."
In their first year under Wiggins, Whitewright took some major steps forward with a 5-6 record. The Tigers not only made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons — coming out on top in a three-way tie-breaker for fourth place — and nearly upset 10-3A (II) champ Big Sandy Harmony before ultimately falling, 52-47, in the bi-district round, but the five victories were more than the 2018 and 2019 campaigns combined (4).
If Whitewright is going to continue building on that success, it will need to fill some spots on both sides of the ball thanks to the graduation of key starters.
"I think we’re pretty good one-deep, but our depth is not very experienced," Wiggins said.
The starting backfield will have new faces after multiple years of relying on Marshall Mangrum at quarterback and Dylan Cordell at running back. Mangrum threw for 2,089 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 496 yards and seven scores, while Cordell was a first-team all-district selection with 885 yards and 12 touchdowns on 130 carries and 17 catches for 354 yards and five TDs.
Whitewright also has to replace a pair of first-team all-district offensive linemen, Radley Hamm and Jaron Gage, and second-team all-district pick Julius Carraway, as well as receiver Ryne Godbey, who was second-team all-district.
Junior Kayden Carraway takes over behind center after serving as the backup QB and making an impact at receiver, totaling 13 catches for 259 yards and four touchdowns last season.
"That’s big shoes to fill," Wiggins said. "He’s athletic. He’s going to be able to add wrinkles to our offense."
A pair of juniors are in the running to serve as the main ball-carrier after Colby Jones and Xyrion Daniels combined for 16 carries in reserve roles a year ago.
"It’s a great competition and they’re going to split time early on," Wiggins said.
Receiver could be a home for either Jones or Daniels based on the package. The Tigers do return Trevor McCartney, who had 28 receptions for 467 yards and five touchdowns and was first-team all-district, and Aaron Pitt, who was second-team all-district with 35 catches for 467 yards and four TDs. Senior Reilly Evans will see more snaps, while sophomore Jace Comola could also factor in at the position as well.
Up front, junior Shane Davis was second-team all-district at left guard and the only Tiger with starting experience. Junior Jax Gage will be the center, while senior Brandon Woods, junior Rafael Maldonaldo and sophomores Chauk Bailey and Kasey Sanders are all battling for starting jobs.
"At some point, we’re going to have to establish the run and keep drives going and that falls on the offensive line," Wiggins said. "We go as they go."
The Tigers have fewer holes to manage on defense, where they bring back eight starters.
Bailey made an immediate impact on the line and was the district’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year, while Woods was a first-team all-district defensive tackle. Junior Jeremiah Ballard and Davis round out the group. Evans was named first-team all-district at linebacker and will be joined inside by Comola. McCartney is moving from corner to outside linebacker and Jones is on the opposite side.
In the secondary, Pitt returns while the other two slots are filled via moves. Carraway, who was a second-team all-district pick at linebacker, is now the free safety and Daniels is going from safety to corner.
Pitt will handle kicking duties again and McCartney takes over at punter for Kylan Watson, who was first-team all-district as a senior.
The Tigers will look to return the playoffs back in Region II after the latest realignment put them in District 8-3A (II) with a couple of their holdover opponents. Whitewright stayed with Bells, Leonard and Blue Ridge and is now joined by defending 3A Division II champion Gunter, S&S and Lone Oak, which dropped down from Division I.
There will be a spirited battle for the four postseason spots, as Bells, Leonard, Blue Ridge and Whitewright are joined by Gunter as schools looking to repeat their playoff success from 2019, and the numbers crunch guarantees that someone is going to be left at home.