The Highlanders, who are just two years removed from a 1-9 season, started last season 9-0, but lost in their season finale against Hampton as well as in the playoffs to wrap up 9-2. Cloudland returns a dangerous group of players that made the Highlanders one of the most explosive offensive teams in the Mountain East Conference last season.
The ‘Landers will be led offensively by junior quarterback Austin Whitehead. After a stellar campaign rushing the ball last season, Whitehead will look to show off more of his arm as the Highlanders will focus on spreading the ball around. At wide receiver, Cloudland looks to see big things from Noah Arnett, Matt Houston ad Preston Benfield.
While Cloudland will look to spread the ball around, the ‘Landers will also look to senior Zac Benfield and junior Colby Birchfield to help carry the load from the backfield.
“Having those three guys, and we have more, definitely make a defensive coordinator have to choose which one he would rather stop,” Pittman said of the trio of Whitehead, Benfield and BIrchfield. “That makes it tough to stop.”
While Cloudland has numerous weapons offensively, Pittman feels that it doesn’t matter unless they win in the trenches.
“The thing is as a former offensive lineman, the backfield doesn’t matter if the offensive linemen are not doing their job,” Pittman said.
The ‘Landers look to newcomer Jonah Woods, as well as returning starters Noah Blair, Cameron Stevens, Ethan Lusk and Hez Street to anchor the offensive line. The five players make up the biggest frontline that Pittman has had in his tenure at Cloudland with an average of 220-230 pounds.
Defensively, Cloudland has the task of replacing their leading tackler in Mason Carnett. James Arwood, who started a few games last season as a freshman, will look to help fill the void, while Whitehead will help anchor the defense at the inside linebacker slot.
Noah Johnson and Woods will look to contribute on the defensive line, and Pittman expects to play a seven-man rotation including Ethan Markland, Stevens, Street and Lusk. In the secondary, the ‘Landers will look to new blood as Austin Simerly, Benfield and Arnett step up at the corner and safety spots. Birchfield, who played on the corner last season, will move to outside linebacker where he will be joined by Houston.
The Highlanders will open the regular season at Avery County (NC), and will make trips to Tri-Cities Christian, North Greene, Hancock County and Hampton. Cloudland will host five home games, four of which are before Week Five, as Happy Valley, Cosby, Johnson County, Unaka and South Greene travel to Orr Field.