(Smoky Mountain Conference) – We are currently 30 something days away from the kickoff of the 2023 football season in Western, North Carolina, and while we will have to wait another month or so to see some real action, it’s time to start some chatter about the upcoming season. TeamFYNSports will post our 1A team rankings in the coming weeks, but until then let’s look at some of the guys who we think could compete for Defensive Player of The Year in the Smoky Mountain Conference.
5. Kadence Leatherwood, LB (Murphy)
The returning leading tackler for the Black and Gold, Leatherwood is going to have to go above and beyond in 2023 to make up for what the Dogs lost in the offseason. With 9 defensive starters gone to graduation, Leatherwood should be a 100+ tackle guy for Murphy this Fall. In his Sophomore campaign, Kadence totaled 95 tackles and 9 tackles for loss on his way to an All Conference honorable mention selection.
4. Joshua Collins, DB (Swain Co.)
Swain County’s leading tackler last season, Joshua Collins will definitely be one to keep an eye on in 2023. Collins sees a lot of reps playing both sides of the football, but somehow finds a way to turn up the intensity on the defensive side of things. Collins might be a Defensive Back on paper, but he isn’t afraid to meet you in the trenches if he needs to. Collins does what he needs to do in passs coverage (team leader in INTs in ’22), but he also gets into the offensive backfield more than some D-Lineman (11.5 TFL in ’22.)
3. Luke Climbingbear, DL (Cherokee)
It’s always hard to evaluate how a player will be used in a new scheme with a new head coach, but if Climbingbear has proven anything over the previous few years it’s that he is going to find his way to the ball carrier. The Smoky Mountain Conference’s leading tackler in 2022 and reining FYNSports Defensive Player of The Year, Luke will anchor a Cherokee defense that will be up against a favorable schedule in 2023. They should be favored in at least 3 of their 5 non-conference games, and if they can head into conference play on the right foot, Climbingbear and the Braves could give teams a hard time down he stretch.
2. Bryce Adams, LB (Robbinsville)
Second in total tackles for the Knights in his Sophomore season, Bryce Adams should take a giant leap forward in his Junior season. Adams started the year as quarterback of the Black Knights defense from the Linebacker position, and finished it as the actual quarterback of the Black Knights under center due to injuries. Adams’ stats defensively were outstanding last year, but you can only imagine the impact he would have had on the defensive side of the ball had he not had to step in and take things over on the offensive side of things. While I would expect him to still play on both sides of the ball in 2023, playing wide receiver or tight end is a lot easier on a kid mentally than playing quarterback. With Bryce Adams, Quinn Jumper, Roman Jones and Kage Williams, Robbinsville undoubtedly has the best Linebacking core in the SMC.
1. Taylor McClure, LB (Hayesville)
Boy has this guy garnered some attention this offseason. Hayesville linebacker and rising senior Taylor McClure has picked up offers from Navy, Army, Air Force, Gardner Webb, and several others after a great showing at camps this summer. The swiss-army knife does it all for the Yellow Jackets, as he was the teams leader in rushing yards and total tackles in his Junior campaign. McClure will be the go-to-guy for the Jackets once again in 2023, and it should be another 100+ tackle year for the kid on defense. If McClure is able to buckle down in pass coverage this year, the Defensive Player of The Year award should be his to lose.