Future bright for youthful UC

Future bright for youthful UC
By MIKE HUTCHENS
Messenger Sports Editor
Union City’s unexpected playoff run that ended with a heartbreaking one-point loss to West Carroll in the Class 1A state quarterfinals will only heighten expectations for the Tornado program’s future.
The Twisters lose just four seniors off this year’s 6-7 squad that started as many as five freshmen and battled through injuries and inexperience to within a failed two-point conversion of Round 4 of the playoffs.
Lineman Michael Dysart is the lone two-way starter of that small senior bunch, meaning UC will return 17 of 22 starters next season.
Included among that lot are eight regulars on an offense that averaged 26.5 points and 309 yards per-game.
Headlining that list is two-time 1,000-yard rusher Keylon Hyde, who’ll be gunning for his place in the school record book as the only running back during the modern era to accomplish that feat in three consecutive seasons. Hyde has rushed for 3,056 yards and 31 touchdowns the last two seasons combined.
The perfect outside complement to the bruising fullback will return for his senior season in 2012, too, in speedy Khiry Lewis.
A South Fulton transfer in his first year with the Tornado program, Lewis rushed for 891 yards — an average of 10.1 per-carry — and 13 TDs. Making that more impressive is that he touched the ball just three times offensively in UC’s first two games before moving from receiver to slot in the Tornadoes veer-option offense.
The return to health of starting quarterback Travis Rutland was critical and remains so in the future to any Union City success. Rutland proved a capable passer with 424 yards and four scores when opponents overloaded the box in run defense and also got progressively better with experience as the triggerman in the triple-option with 413 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
The offensive line will return two-year starters Joseph Shanks and Brett Gore, along with center Walt Williams, who stepped in at mid-season and was solid. Freshman Kane Taylor and senior Walker Barnes, both of whom missed the season-ending playoff loss to West Carroll due to injury and illness, respectively, will also be back after gaining valuable seasoning this year against sometimes overwhelming competition.
Defensively, there are certainly strides to be made, but eight returnees make that a legitimate possibility.
Sophomore linebacker Tymaine Strickland could be a difference-maker after improving significantly as the season progressed and leading the team in tackles. Hyde, who was No. 2 on the hit list, will be back at LB, too.
Shanks, who could and has played both end and linebacker, has good days ahead of him on defense, as does freshman Jamie Pirtle at tackle, fellow ninth-grader Ricky Henry, who was pressed into service at end, and Gore, who can play with his hand on the ground or at linebacker.
Improving in a secondary that was often riddled is a must, as is getting better on all special teams.
A promising freshman class that will be sophomores next fall could provide not only depth, but a handful of starters.
And another group with potentially-good players will come across the road from the middle school program, too.
Published in The Messenger 11.23.11

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