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HomeSportsFrom The PressboxYouth fuels Oneida's surprisingly good defense

Youth fuels Oneida’s surprisingly good defense

Few people expected much of Oneida this season. Yet here the Indians are as one of the last 16 teams left standing in Class 2A. Young players stepping up on defense has been a big reason why.

Rewind to early August, and there were few people around East Tennessee high school football who would've predicted Oneida to still be playing on the second weekend of November.

In fact, many would have been more likely to predict the Indians to win three or four games and maybe even miss the playoffs entirely — and some did say so, out loud. 

Yet, here is Oneida, fresh off a thoroughly dominating performance at Happy Valley in the opening round of the postseason, one of only 16 teams still standing in Class 2A football as the Indians prepare to rematch York Institute on Friday in Jamestown (8 p.m.).

How have the Indians exceeded expectations this season? It's not a secret: Defense. 

After a 9-win season that took the Indians to the state quarterfinals in 2021, they took a decided step back last year. The loss of a bunch of seniors hurt, and Oneida won just four games. A key factor in last year's struggles was offensive inconsistency; the Indians were shut out twice and scored no more than one touchdown in almost half of their games. The defense wasn't bad a year ago, but with all those holes left by graduation the previous spring, the Indians gave up a lot of points in the games that mattered most — 42 against Rockwood, 42 against Monterey, 42 against rival Coalfield, and 32 in a playoff loss at Hampton.

The problem was that the Indians were again graduating a lot of faces — and on both sides of the football. That's what created so many doubters, and who could blame them? It was pretty easy to see that Oneida had a lot of young potential, but youthful talent doesn't always win football games on Friday nights.

This year, though, those young players have become the catalysts to a surprising season for OHS. 

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Chief among them is sophomore . Virtually unheard of by football fans in places like Benton and Pikeville and Rockwood prior to the start of this season, he has become a machine at his linebacker position. He is averaging over 11 tackles a game — and though no one appears to have the old stats to prove it, he could be chasing a single-season school record in that category. He's also forced three fumbles, and recovered one. And he's tied with senior as the team leader in pass break-ups, with seven.

Maybe even more surprising has been the emergence of another sophomore, . At the start of the season, Burchfield was fighting just to get on the field, and he has surged to become the Indians' second leading tackler, averaging almost 9 per game. 

Then there's the play of sophomore . He plays the defensive end position opposite junior . One thing the Indians knew they had coming into the season was a pair of capable pass rushers on the edge, and Zachary and Frazier haven't disappointed. They've teamed up for eight of the Indians' nine sacks this year (three for Zachary, five for Frazier). 

One thing that was far less certain was whether freshmen would be called upon, and whether they'd be able to come through in the clutch if they were.

Enter Eli Jordan Sexton. In his first season of high school football, Sexton hasn't played on the defensive side of the ball in every game. But he got a big opportunity on a big stage in the Indians' first round playoff win in Elizabethton on Friday, and he came through in a big way. In fact, it's not unfair to say that Sexton was a big reason why the Indians won the game — or, at least, a big reason why they shut out Happy Valley. The freshman forced two fumbles and recovered one, including a big stop on the Warriors' most promising drive of the night, after they had reached Oneida's 21-yard-line.

The Indians knew they had seasoned talents in their secondary, like Limburg and junior . Neither of them have disappointed; they're also among the team leaders in tackles. Less heralded has been the quiet but steady performances of guys like . He's a junior, so maybe he doesn't qualify as “young” anymore, at least in high school football terms, but this is his first season seeing major time on the field and he's battled through injuries to be the team's fifth-leading tackler.

Oneida's defense has been good all season. The Indians gave up 33 in a Week 2 loss to Coalfield, and gave up 28 each to region foes York Institute and Bledsoe County. Aside from that, they have given up more than two touchdowns in a single game just once — Wartburg back on Sept. 8. 

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Still, the Indians had not shut out an opponent this season. In fact, Oneida had not shut out an opponent since a 19-0 win at Northview Academy back in 2021. But in the biggest game of the season, Oneida turned in what was probably its best defensive effort of the season at Happy Valley. The Warriors finished with only 79 yards, turned the ball over three times, and didn't take a single snap inside the red zone. It was no surprise to see Gilbert's name at the top of the stat sheet, with 14 tackles.

At least some of the credit belongs to a guy who hasn't been on the field for a single snap this season. Defensive coordinator Mark Martin has quickly made a name for himself as one of the better defensive coordinators in East Tennessee. He was tabbed by Jimmy May to lead the Indians' defense when May was promoted to head coach prior to the start of the 2021 season, and his defenses have been nothing if not surprisingly good. 

Martin's first defense, that senior-laden unit back in 2021, gave up just 12 points per game and was especially effective against the run. This year's team isn't as good on paper, giving up an average of 16 points per game. But against what is arguably a tougher schedule and with a roster that is decidedly younger than the one two years ago, this might go down as Martin's best coaching effort yet on the defensive side of the ball.

No one is under any illusion that Friday's trip to Jamestown is going to be easy. York Institute is ranked as the top Class 2A team in the state, and features experience-laden seniors up and down its roster. The Dragons are undefeated, have given up more than one touchdown in a game just three times in 11 games, and are yielding an average of only 7 points a game, and have recorded three shutouts — one of them being against Oneida back in September. They're coming off a 61-7 win over Eagleton in the first round of the playoffs.

But one thing is certain: Good defense will always give you a shot in any game. And by Game 12, even the preseason doubters will expect nothing less than a solid defensive effort from the Indians this week.  

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Rewind to early August, and there were few people around East Tennessee high school football who would've predicted Oneida to still be playing on the second weekend of November.

In fact, many would have been more likely to predict the Indians to win three or four games and maybe even miss the playoffs entirely — and some did say so, out loud. 

Yet, here is Oneida, fresh off a thoroughly dominating performance at Happy Valley in the opening round of the postseason, one of only 16 teams still standing in Class 2A football as the Indians prepare to rematch York Institute on Friday in Jamestown (8 p.m.).

How have the Indians exceeded expectations this season? It's not a secret: Defense. 

After a 9-win season that took the Indians to the state quarterfinals in 2021, they took a decided step back last year. The loss of a bunch of seniors hurt, and Oneida won just four games. A key factor in last year's struggles was offensive inconsistency; the Indians were shut out twice and scored no more than one touchdown in almost half of their games. The defense wasn't bad a year ago, but with all those holes left by graduation the previous spring, the Indians gave up a lot of points in the games that mattered most — 42 against Rockwood, 42 against Monterey, 42 against rival Coalfield, and 32 in a playoff loss at Hampton.

- Advertisement -

The problem was that the Indians were again graduating a lot of faces — and on both sides of the football. That's what created so many doubters, and who could blame them? It was pretty easy to see that Oneida had a lot of young potential, but youthful talent doesn't always win football games on Friday nights.

This year, though, those young players have become the catalysts to a surprising season for OHS. 

Chief among them is sophomore . Virtually unheard of by football fans in places like Benton and Pikeville and Rockwood prior to the start of this season, he has become a machine at his linebacker position. He is averaging over 11 tackles a game — and though no one appears to have the old stats to prove it, he could be chasing a single-season school record in that category. He's also forced three fumbles, and recovered one. And he's tied with senior as the team leader in pass break-ups, with seven.

Maybe even more surprising has been the emergence of another sophomore, . At the start of the season, Burchfield was fighting just to get on the field, and he has surged to become the Indians' second leading tackler, averaging almost 9 per game. 

Then there's the play of sophomore . He plays the defensive end position opposite junior . One thing the Indians knew they had coming into the season was a pair of capable pass rushers on the edge, and Zachary and Frazier haven't disappointed. They've teamed up for eight of the Indians' nine sacks this year (three for Zachary, five for Frazier). 

- Advertisement -

One thing that was far less certain was whether freshmen would be called upon, and whether they'd be able to come through in the clutch if they were.

Enter Eli Jordan Sexton. In his first season of high school football, Sexton hasn't played on the defensive side of the ball in every game. But he got a big opportunity on a big stage in the Indians' first round playoff win in Elizabethton on Friday, and he came through in a big way. In fact, it's not unfair to say that Sexton was a big reason why the Indians won the game — or, at least, a big reason why they shut out Happy Valley. The freshman forced two fumbles and recovered one, including a big stop on the Warriors' most promising drive of the night, after they had reached Oneida's 21-yard-line.

The Indians knew they had seasoned talents in their secondary, like Limburg and junior . Neither of them have disappointed; they're also among the team leaders in tackles. Less heralded has been the quiet but steady performances of guys like . He's a junior, so maybe he doesn't qualify as “young” anymore, at least in high school football terms, but this is his first season seeing major time on the field and he's battled through injuries to be the team's fifth-leading tackler.

Oneida's defense has been good all season. The Indians gave up 33 in a Week 2 loss to Coalfield, and gave up 28 each to region foes York Institute and Bledsoe County. Aside from that, they have given up more than two touchdowns in a single game just once — Wartburg back on Sept. 8. 

Still, the Indians had not shut out an opponent this season. In fact, Oneida had not shut out an opponent since a 19-0 win at Northview Academy back in 2021. But in the biggest game of the season, Oneida turned in what was probably its best defensive effort of the season at Happy Valley. The Warriors finished with only 79 yards, turned the ball over three times, and didn't take a single snap inside the red zone. It was no surprise to see Gilbert's name at the top of the stat sheet, with 14 tackles.

- Advertisement -

At least some of the credit belongs to a guy who hasn't been on the field for a single snap this season. Defensive coordinator Mark Martin has quickly made a name for himself as one of the better defensive coordinators in East Tennessee. He was tabbed by Jimmy May to lead the Indians' defense when May was promoted to head coach prior to the start of the 2021 season, and his defenses have been nothing if not surprisingly good. 

Martin's first defense, that senior-laden unit back in 2021, gave up just 12 points per game and was especially effective against the run. This year's team isn't as good on paper, giving up an average of 16 points per game. But against what is arguably a tougher schedule and with a roster that is decidedly younger than the one two years ago, this might go down as Martin's best coaching effort yet on the defensive side of the ball.

No one is under any illusion that Friday's trip to Jamestown is going to be easy. York Institute is ranked as the top Class 2A team in the state, and features experience-laden seniors up and down its roster. The Dragons are undefeated, have given up more than one touchdown in a game just three times in 11 games, and are yielding an average of only 7 points a game, and have recorded three shutouts — one of them being against Oneida back in September. They're coming off a 61-7 win over Eagleton in the first round of the playoffs.

But one thing is certain: Good defense will always give you a shot in any game. And by Game 12, even the preseason doubters will expect nothing less than a solid defensive effort from the Indians this week.  

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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