Hopkinsville High School Tiger Football coach Craig Clayton is ready for kickoff Friday and wishes it came a lot sooner.

“I’m a little disappointed that we haven’t already started,” Clayton said in an interview with the New Era. “Indiana and Tennessee have already played two weeks and we’re just getting in this week.”

Although Gov. Andy Beshear recommended that schools wait to return to in-person instruction, the fate of fall sports was left to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, which voted to let them play starting this week. Each school district has the liberty to decide if they play or not, but Christian County is following the KHSAA decision.

Tiger Football will kickoff at 7 p.m. Friday with its first game against Henderson County.

Clayton said he is approaching this season with extreme caution.

“We’ve been pretty conservative,” he said. “We’re doing all of the policies that are mandated — the masks, and the social distancing — everything. Hopefully we can get through the season without having to stop. I think it’s necessary that we get back into schools and sports. I think the effects of not playing and not getting back into school is going to be a lot worse than the effects of the COVID.”

Clayton said football is an important outlet and educational motivator for a lot of athletes.

“I have four or five (athletes) that I’m just trying to hang on to and give them some sort of structure,” he said. “I think (school and football) are necessary for their socialization.”

Along with the highly sought-after, Division 1 prospect Reece Jesse returning, Clayton said he has a few players fans should look out for on the field.

Trey Jefferson just transferred back from Florida. Clayton said Trey played for Hoptown in eighth grade, moved away for a few years and recently moved back.

“He’s really had a good off-season this year,” the coach said. “What’s really been great is his leadership skills. He’s going to be a great prospect that no one knows about this year.”

Clayton said other returning players include Jayden Dillard, who started as a running back last year as a sophomore, as well as three players on the offensive line who all started last year — Justin Banks, Brandon McCarley and Zach Trice.

“I think we’ve got some depth there that will be the strength of our team,” Clayton said.

Baseball standout Ryan Myers is also returning to the gridiron along with tight end Lane Rushing, whom Clayton said had a great season last year.

“We have a bunch of backups coming this year — we should be better off than we’ve been since I’ve been here,” the coach said.

Clayton said their biggest strength will be on the defensive front, which includes Tahj Manning, Tyler Jones, Donyea Welch and CJ Henderson.

“They all played or started last year,” he said. “They are all pretty good size guys, so we should be strong on that front.”

Additional highlights on this year’s team include Ventrell Baker and Daisjuan Mercer, who was a ninth-grader last year, but had nine interceptions and made the All-State team, Clayton noted.

As far as challenges, the coach said the team lost all its linebackers last year.

“That’s the area we’re working on,” he said. “We did get a transfer in, Marcus Jones from Mississippi who will be good. He’s a sophomore.”

Clayton said the team didn’t get to do any 7-on-7, but the guys found other ways to stay sharp.

“They’re so bored because they can’t do anything,” he said before practices were allowed to start. “Since last March, they’ve been throwing and playing sandlot football with all the kids around town.”

Clayton said he is glad that KHSAA and the governor ultimately allowed sports to start.

“I think the governor wanted to not play, but I think politically it would have been a disaster for him,” the coach said. “In Kentucky, as a state, we’re very sports minded here. And, I look at the overall picture. The kids need to be in sports, and that’s not just football, the marching band, the debate club ... They need to get back to life because the long-term effects would be disastrous.”

Clayton said another challenge due to the pandemic will be fundraising. The team didn’t get to do two of its major fundraisers, so the coach said he’s going back to the old way.

“I’m just going to start making phone calls,” he said. “I don’t like to beg for money, but this year I will be.”

To donate to the team, mail checks to Hopkinsville High School Football Booster Club.

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