Preseason look at Class 3A; here’s our top-5 heading into ’21. @minguabeefjerky @PrepSpin @1776Bank @KyHighFootball

Last week we peeked at the 2A classification and forecast the 1A classification the week prior. We projected a top five preseason for both levels of play.

This week we will do the same for Class 3A. We will continue on this march on up toward the ’21 season openers.

Today we give you the 3A Classification. Here is how we see it.

Number one: The Belfry Pirates…

It seems year-in and year-out, Belfry is getting forecast to win its classification. That happens when you’re coached by Kentucky’s all-time winningest coach (Phillip Haywood) and you have won a whopping seven titles. Comes with the territory.

This didn’t figure to be a very good year for Belfry. Many thought the Pirates would be rebuilding its roster after the 21s walked across the graduation platform. Then came SB-128.

That senate bill, signed into law, didn’t help all teams like it did Belfry. Most Pike County kids consider the privilege of playing on Pond Creek as superior to playing in college. So, Belfry had some really key pieces return.

Belfry, which was supposed to graduate four of its five offensive linemen, returned all but two from off of last year’s offensive line. Two of the three returners are returning under SB-128.

Spencer Hensley and Logan McCoy are the two “hold-backs” and will greatly improve the Pirates’ fortunes upfront. Isaac Dixon, a finalist for the “Mr. Football Award” on many ballots a year ago, is also returning under SB-128 and, with the returning Hogs upfront, the reclassified RB figures to have another HUGE year.

Dixon’s return can’t not be over-emphasized. He was the game MVP when Belfry last won the title in 2019.

Photo of Isaac Dixon: Teddy Paynter, Mountain-Top Sports

Isaiah Stanley gives the Pirates one of the finest incoming freshman skills in all of Kentucky joining its roster. Mr. Stanley will find his way to the field quickly is our guess.

Pirates also return Zayne Hatfield (’22), Dre Young (RB, ’24), and Rudy Blackwell (’23). These three figure to take on leading roles for the Pirates, offensively, at various skill positions.

The Defensive side of the ball returns a majority of its starters from a year ago. Zack Savage (’22) may have the best surname for a defensive lineman in the history of the sport. Savage, along with Jake Varney (’23), and Brayden Spears (’23) are the marquee players along the defensive first level.

The defensive second level lost Seth Mounts and Brad Lowe from off the linebacking corp and those two losses are pretty big. However, Rudy Blackwell (LB, ’23) is a star at that level defensively and is set to stand in the shoes of some outstanding former Pirates to captain defenses on “Pond Creek.”

Look for Neal Copley (’23), Dre Young (’24), and Noah Brown (’23) to get the nod, along with Blackwell, at the LBer posts. Isaac Dixon and Zane Hatfield will be odds-on favorites to hold down the back-end.

Specialist Gideon Ireson (’22) will handle kick-offs as he has done the previous two years. He is a heck of a punter too, which is always nice to have lying around any roster.

Now the road for Belfry in ’21 is going to be a tough one. The Pirates open in a bowl game against Class 5A Pulaski, play Class 5A powerhouse, Covington Catholic, get our number one pick in class 2A (LCA) the very next week, play Central (Louisville), for its fourth game, and then entertain one of 1A’s favorites in Pikeville High for game five. They also close with Johnson Central, who figure to challenge for the 4A title before the playoffs commence.

Belfry could enter the playoffs 5-5 and still be in the hunt for a title. We don’t see them losing 5-games against any schedule but we bring that up to make a point.

Belfry probably enters the playoffs in the 7-3 to 8-2 range. If it goes at least 7-3 against the schedule it is playing, lookout 3A!

Number two: There’s a bad storm brewing in Paducah…It’s Blue Tornado Season!

You are going to think I am crazy here. This team was 4-4 a year ago.

I have a friend who has been hanging around their practices. This guy has worked for some of the finest programs in both 4A and 5A on teams who won or challenged yearly for titles. He told me it may be the most talented roster he has ever seen. His opinion had an impact on my picks.

This pick will make us either geniuses or dunces. We like our chances. We fear neither label.

That 4-4 “Blue Tornado” team from a year ago had freshmen at three key posts and were awfully young at several key positions. Tilghman will have lots of production back, as graduation has so thoroughly decimated many other top teams in the 3A classification.

Uriah Virzi

Besides, isn’t it time the mighty program from Paducah, Kentucky cycle back toward the top? High School football in Kentucky is a healthier game when programs like Paducah Tilghman are prospering.

Class of ’24 RB, Malachi Rider may be the best player at his position in Kentucky in his graduating class. Rider gained 775-yards in 83-rushing attempts with 9-TDs rushing in only 8-games of action in ’20. Show me another freshman who did that last year.

Talk about your talented freshmen, Jack James, ’24 QB, returns and was 49 for 80 with 807-passing yards and 10-TDs. James wasn’t much of a threat with his feet a year ago. We believe he will add this to his game in ’21.

PK, Nickal Shelby (’22) is one of the more reliable at what he does on the western end of the commonwealth. He was 18 for 20 on PATs a year ago and we have explained, many times, the boon of having a weapon in the kicking game. Those points add up and factor into outcomes.

Class of ’24, Uriah Virzi, is a budding superstar. He had 40-tackles with 3-TFLs over his freshman year. He scored him some carries on offense too (8-carries, 57-yards, 2-TDs) giving you an indication about his athleticism and wheels. Between James, Rider, and Virzi, the Blue Tornado boasted three of the finer freshmen in Kentucky in ’20 who all figure to “up their games” considerably in ’21.

Chris Allen was one of the team leaders in QB-sacks a year ago and he is a ’23 prospect with whom many around the Jackson Purchase are right impressed. Turner Humphrey, Class of ’22, was second on the team in INTs (behind only Brian Thomas, ’21) and the ’22 DB returns.

The defense will be adding transfer Oscar “JT” Adams (’23). Adams is a reigning State Champion on the wrestling mat and one of the better high school second-level defenders in western Kentucky.

We are told Adams was one of Christian County’s leading tacklers in ’20. That is even more impressive as he was playing in one of Class 5A’s tougher districts (Same district as ’20 champion Bowling Green and South Warren).

This team may be a year away from winning a title. They are talented enough to be in the thick of things this coming fall.

Number three: Christian Academy-Louisville…

It is hard to figure, preseason, private schools. They have the luxury of not being tied to any particular zone and pretty much anyone who can afford to pay the freight may play there.

Private schools seem to hang around the top of most of Kentucky’s six classifications. There has to be a reason for that.

On paper, CAL experienced some significant losses to graduation. However, there is talent returning and the great unknown regarding talent which just “shows up” on the roster. With private schools you have to consider the players KPGFootball either lacked the opportunity to scout or talent we thought would be playing elsewhere.

Easton Messer

CAL had a bad season in ’20 by Centurion standards. No one around that program is strutting around about finishing 7-3 and losing to finalist, E-Town, in the semis.

Like so many in the 3A classification, CAL suffered some losses. Connor Masters departs from his QB slot and he will be a big miss. The Centurions will also miss leading rusher, Brandt Babin, and his twin brother Braeden, both headed to Furman to play football. The Babins were two-way stars so that is losing four, not two, All-State caliber players

There is some talent returning too. Leading scorer/receiver, Easton Messer returns. He’s a ’22 kid who caught 49-balls a year ago for 830-yards and 10-receiving TDs.

Adam Ballard (’22) also returns (23-receptions, 324-receiving yards, 5-TDs). Ballard and Messer give the Centurions two of its top-three targets back for another year.

PK, Dylan Cornett returns. The ’22 place-kicker was reliable in ’20 converting on 19 of his 24 PATs. Having a reliable kicker shouldn’t be overlooked.

Leading returning tackler, Gavin Copenhaver (’23), had himself a year. He had 69-stops, 7-TFLs, a sack, an interception, a FF, and a FR in ’20. Cole Hodge (’24) led the team in interceptions as only a freshman. He may be the heir apparent to Masters at QB. Hodge played that position at an incredibly high level in middle school.

We expect CAL to be in the mix because they are CAL. They are excellently coached, have outstanding facilities and equipment, boast a college preparatory curriculum with few peers, and every available means to attract top-flight, top-notch talent to its roster and student body.

Number four: Bardstown

Bardstown was 7-2 in ’20 and can argue it was 3A’s 3rd or 4th best team a year ago. The Tigers are in the same district with 2020 state finalist E-Town and narrowly dropped the District Championship to E-Town 35-28 in the second round at E-Town.

Our putting Bardstown here tells you how we see that district finishing in ’21. E-Town has been decimated by graduation and shouldn’t figure to be the same team in ’21 it was in ’20.

QB, Brady Clark is back for another year and that is really good news for Coach David Clark’s Tigers. The 6-4, 200-pound QB, appears to have reclassified under SB-128. He was listed as a senior on last year’s roster. He had a good year in ’20, despite only playing in 9-games.

Clark completed 87 of his 143-attempts, for 1,396-passing yards, with 26-TDs against only 4-thrown interceptions. He was fairly effective with his feet too (410-carries, 219-yards, and a score). He’s the kind of “big-timer” at QB who can take a team on a deep run come playoff time.

Bardstown also has a “stud” running back. TJ Greenwell is a ’23 prospect who appears to fit that bill.

TJ Greenwell

Greenwell gained 877-yards in only 64-carries with 13 of the club’s 30-rushing TDs in his 9-games. Considering the 5-10, 175-pounder clips off 40-yards in 4.48-seconds, benches 300-pounds, and squats 435, some of his on-field success makes even more sense.

Tyleeq Williams, ’24, was a fresham in ’20 and he comes back older, stronger, faster, and more developed for the ’21 campaign. Williams’ 21-carries for 482-yards and 4-rushing TDs was just a preview of what may happen when he gets more carries.

Class of ’23, Shannon Tonge returns at receiver. Tonge had 16-receptions for 270-yards receiving and 3-scores in ’20.

Greenwell was good out of the backfield with 14-receptions for 243-yards and 3-scores to go along with what he did running the football. Yessir, Greenwell was the club’s leading scorer.

Lemark Veasey (’22) is back at his place-kicking duties this fall. In ’20, he was 21 of 30 on PATs.

Defensively, the Tigers will miss the trio of Gray Clark, DaTrail Wright, and Jagger Kenny. Tyleeq Williams (48-stops), TJ Greenwell (5-TFLs and a sack), and Yared Raley (’22, 4-TFLs and a sack) will just have to hold things in check until some more of the young talent grows into new roles.

Greenwell tied for the club lead in interceptions, last year. His so return for another “go-around” bodes well for the defensive “back-end.”

Bardstown is one of those teams which always seems to hang around the top-10 weekly polls. This is a good year for them to break through. E-Town is down, may not be out, but they are certainly operating with a much lighter and less talented roster than it has in previous years.

Number five: Paul Blazer High School in Ashland, Kentucky (Defending State Champs)…

Okay, graduation hit this team pretty hard. They are still Ashland-Blazer and “AB,” as they are sometimes called, are a well-coached, well-drilled, well-oiled, football playing machine.

The first glaring loss which jumps out at the reader from the Blazer backfield is the loss of Keontae Pittman. Pittman gained 1,557 yards and scored 24 rushing TDs in leading the Tomcats to the title in ’20. He will be missed.

Brett Mullins Photo Credit: Ryan Fischer, Herald-Dispatch

Brett Mullins, steady if not spectacular, is back at QB to run the offense but most of his receiving corp and several of last year’s leading rushers are gone to graduation. If we told you how many of the defense’s stars graduated you might not believe us.

Among last season’s top-10 tacklers, Blazer lost Nos. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 & 10. We could have just said the defense lost 8 of its top 10-tacklers from a year ago but we decided to spell it out; it makes a bigger impression.

Look on the bright side, they also graduated all the top interceptions leaders. Wait a minute; come to think of it, that isn’t much of a bright outlook.

Here’s exactly what we are telling you; it is a good thing Ashland Blazer won it last year. As the roster demonstrated, ’20 was the year to do it, if at all.

Now with all of the above being said, the reader may say, “Why are they on this preseason list? Well, they probably shouldn’t be other than they won it a season ago and they have an excellent tradition and are excellently coached.

There is no shortage of football players around Ashland, Kentucky. Don’t expect Russell to roll over and hand AB the District 7 crown in ’21.

Honorable Mentions: Bell County, Mercer County, Russell, E-Town, Glasgow, Taylor County, Trigg County

This is HB Lyon reporting for Kentucky Prep Gridiron reminding you that WE’RE JUST CALLING IT LIKE WE SEE IT! 

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