On Thursday night, the Vestavia Hills Rebels will travel to Mountain Brook to take on the Spartans to kickoff the 2023 football season. Last year, Vestavia Hills lost to Mountain Brook 24-14 and looks to change the outcome this season at Spartan Stadium.
Robert Evans is in his second season at Vestavia Hills and played a very up-tempo offense that put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses last season. The Rebels started the season losing three out of their first four games, then won five out of six games to close out the regular season. In the playoffs, the Rebels had a win over Austin but fell to Thompson in the next round.
"We are sort of a brand new team from last season," said Rebels head coach Evans. "We lost a lot of starters from last season that we have to replace on both sides of the ball. Some are even changing positions. We are trying to maximize our resources. We are trying to bring everyone up to speed, but our game with Mountain Brook last season didn't go how we wanted it to go. I think it will be an exciting game. There is no telling how we will do in the first game. We will have a plan, but it could go out the window. We are ready to play."
Running the high-octane offense is quarterback John Paul Head. The senior QB had over 3,500 total yards with 38 touchdowns. Head can throw or run it at any time and make the big play with his feet or arm. "I think we have more options than we have ever had at Vestavia," added Evans. "I hope we don't have to place the burden on him like we did on offense last season. We need him to be healthy at the end of the game, and we think he will have another big year for us." Backup, Brayden Robertson has a strong arm and can run the Rebels offense.
William Tonsmeire has a lot of experience and is an explosive runner at running back. Caden Taylor will get some reps. The H-backs are Caden Taylor and Carson Mann.
The Rebels wide receivers are talented. Keown Richardson checks all the boxes. Richardson can highpoint a ball and is a good route runner with breakaway speed. Chase Webb, Cooper Mollison, and Jay Daniels round out the receiving core. Tight ends Bruce Littleton and Charlie Ingram are excellent.
The Rebels offensive line only has one returning starter, and he is a good one. John David Livingston returns and must lead the young offensive line group. Ford Brown, Hill Hughan, Landon Page, and Caleb Boylan must play big to give the Rebels offense scoring opportunities. "John David is a big body, and he is essential to our front line," said Evans. "We have been practicing the way we need to play for this group to get experience."
The Vestavia Hills defense had two games last season where they gave up only seven points or less. They will need to play big to help out the offense and that young offensive line early in the season. Defensive lineman Jordan Ross is high-energy and had two defensive touchdowns and 16 tackles for loss last season. Ross just gave a verbal commitment to Tennessee. "Jordan has a better understanding of what is going on in our system with many reps," said Evans. "We need to manage him to stay fresh, and we need his high energy on third down when teams want to throw the football. That is where his value is at our level and in college."
Chuck Hammack, Harrison Faust, and Myles Plugge round out the starters on the defensive line. Yates Bannon, Walker Gardner, Monte Hedgemon, and William Plaisance will get playing time on the defensive line.
Linebackers Jacob Watson, Grayson Bruno, and Gibson Bean will get the start in the first week of the season. Linebackers Whit Bohorofoush, Luke Beckham, and Anthony Bean will see the field at linebacker.
The secondary is solid with experience. Corner Kaden Daniels and Kohen Nelson will get the start with Jordan Skrabo, and Jack Mayhall will be the backup at corner. Daniels is a shutdown corner with good instincts and is quick to the football. Safeties Spence Hanna and Beau Shea can support the run with the best of them. Hanna brings a lot of experience to the secondary. Backups Matthew Ledbetter and Cross Tonsmeire could see action against Mountain Brook.
Even with the extreme heat Thursday night, the Rebels are still going to push the offensive tempo, hoping not to put the defense right back on the field with a lot of three-and-outs. "More times than not, you have to score to win football games," added Evans. "As a defensive guy, it pains me sometimes that we put our defense in a bad position at times, but in today's football, you have to score. We have two different styles in this game, and we are hoping our style will get it done, but sometimes you have to win a defensive game sometimes."
The special teams have punter Owen Simpson and kicker Carter Shirley for the Rebels. One thing is for sure: the Rebels have a bag of tricks up their sleeves. Do they get to use any of them? Stayed tuned for any big plays in the special teams department for the Rebels.
The Mountain Brook Spartans finished the season at 13-3 last season and a spot in the title game, losing to Saraland in the 6A finals. The Spartans have the talent to get back into the game but know they have some essential pieces to replace.
"We had a real grueling camp," said Spartans head coach Chris Yeager. "We pushed the kids hard. I have enjoyed the grind, but we had an excellent camp. We lost some seniors but have a lot of good players coming back. We have some spots to fill and a sense of urgency."
Quarterback John Cooper takes the reins of the offense this season. Cooper can have a big season with many good pieces around him. "He is a unique player in the quarterback age," added Yeager. "He has been the quarterback with this group. He is a Mountain Brook Spartan first. That is very unique in him. He is Mountain Brook first. He is a high processor. He will see a play before I see it and tell me about a new one. He understands how things can add to the system. We try to create a player-led team."
The Spartans running game is in good shape with one of the returning starters. Cole Gamble rushed for 2,222 yards with 39 touchdowns and had ten receptions for 123 yards. Gambe was first-team all-state and will need another big season for Mountain Brook to return to the 6A championship game. "I was talking to Cole yesterday about his ability to fake out running plays and block for your other running back," said Yeager. "To be a great running back is to be a great teammate. He has gained 10 pounds, is a little faster, and is a great young man."
Jack King is the other running back that will see carries in that first game. King can run or catch it out of the backfield and will be an asset in the passing game. Ryan Pugh and Stuart Andrews will be in the rotation.
Wide receiver Clark Sanderson returns. Trey Vinson and Hudson Young will go with Sanderson and tight end JC Adams. Gabe Smith, Korda'e Harper, Sam Smith, and Jack Walthall will get some looks at receiver.
The Spartans offensive linemen have two significant returnees. Watts Alexander and William Courtenay will dominate the left side of the line. These two are two of the best in Class 6A. "William has been banged up, but he is a warrior," said Yeager. "He is playing through pain. We are a different football team with those two guys. It is helpful when you have these two at your cornerstone. They are helping coach the other three guys."
Center Rocco Gray, right guard Carter Colvin, and right tackle Daniel Ellis will start with Courtenay and Alexander. They will have a tall task keeping Ross out of their backfield on third downs. Other linemen who could see action are Charlie Smith, Jack Donahue, Aiden Pledger, Kevin Hughes, and Henry Gimenez.
The Spartans' defense was very stingy last season, only giving up 12.0 points per game. A few players in the box must be replaced from last season.
The defensive linemen of Ricky Whitworth, James Hard, and Parker Redden will get the start, but Ham Mandell, Mayor Teague, and Frank Lee will see playing time for the Spartans.
The linebackers have been the core of the defense over the years. This will be the same this season. Inside linebacker William-Grier McDuffie and outside linebacker Drew Widener will lead the Spartans' defense. It could be their time for these two. Pelham Comer and Harris Vinoski will add good talent to the Spartans box. Linebackers Joseph Green, Miller Lee, Boyd Cooper, and Benjamin Payne add depth to the defense.
The secondary is in good hands with Tucker Crawford, Clyde Beavers, Harris Crumpton, and Hampton King. "Our secondary is versatile and they free up the guys up front," said Yeager. "Sometimes we can take more risks when you have some experience in the back end. Clyde is a great leader. He is a guy that the team rallies around. He can play relaxed and see the field."
The Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook game has been a special game between the two. "I am sure there are a few areas we need to look at for this game," added Yeager. "We are playing great competition this week. I'm grateful that we are playing a worthy opponent. They will make us a better football team. I have a great love for their head coach, and they will demand us to play at our best, and we recognize it. This is a great rivalry."
Due to the extreme heat, the game will start at 7:30 pm instead of the usual 7:00 pm kickoff time.