The Commerce football team asks all of its seniors to take an eight-lesson leadership course. Perhaps in no other season will that syllabus be more useful than in a year of uncertainty like this one.
“One of our lessons is ‘Welcome Murphy,’” Tiger coach Michael Brown explained. “And that’s just the idea of Murphy’s Law, that Murphy is going to pay us a visit at some point this year, and we want to make him a teammate and let him make us stronger, and they’ve already had to do that all summer.”
Brown said the team has remained resilient and productive under the leadership of a 20-man senior class during a COVID-19 pandemic that threatened the high school football season and could still have an effect on it.
This senior class is the largest Commerce has had in years — or maybe ever — and Brown is excited about those numbers.
“You count on that aspect of leadership, and I think that’s going to be a big part of our leadership this year,” Brown said.
Commerce, nevertheless, has some holes to fill after a 9-3, state quarterfinals run last year.
The Tigers replace a three-year starter at quarterback, Nate Ray. Sophomore Trey Huff is set to take the reins of the Tigers’ triple option offense, one that averaged over 300 yards rushing per game in 2019.
Commerce must also replace fullback Sam Roach, who rushed for nearly 1,000yards, and two key interior defensive linemen, Trahvon Wiggins and Conner Kyle.
The Tigers, however, boast an experienced offensive front with a number of players who started or received playing time last year. That group is led by center Payton Freeman, a three-year starter at center and a preseason all-state selection. And Tyelon Brock, who averaged 15.6 yards per carry last year, could very well be a game-changer in the backfield.
With the Georgia High School Association having now completely separated public and private schools in region play, Commerce will no longer compete with the likes of private-school powers Prince Avenue and Athens Academy for a region title.
The Tigers will instead lineup against a Region 8-A Public made up of tradition-rich Lincoln County, along with Washington-Wilkes, Greene County, Social Circle and Towns County. Brown praised the level of coaching in the region and also pointed to its athleticism.
“I think it’s an athletic region,” Brown said. “I think it’s more similar to some of the teams that we typically face in the playoffs from south Georgia. It will be a different brand of football than what we’ve played, not necessarily better or worse, just different.”
As Commerce moves toward its Sept. 4 opener, Brown is confident in the work his team put in during what was a highly-unusual summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tigers had a particularly noteworthy offseason in the weight room, despite a long layoff brought on by the virus’s outbreak.
“The biggest thing about our team as a whole is they’ve really worked hard in that weight room and gotten stronger,” Brown said. “Our strength levels are as good as they’ve been. What that allows you to do is play our brand of football, which is to try to play physical, hard-nosed football, and that’s kind of our expectation.”
Brown said this senior-ladened team has the right mindset in entering what could be an unpredictable 2020 given the current landscape of high school sports in a pandemic.
“We talk a lot about controlling what we can control,” Brown said. “They understand that there’s a lot at stake here, and they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to in terms of preventive measures to make sure we’re not opening ourselves up to unnecessary risks at practice or in the weight room … That’s kind of part of our team philosophy anyway is to just focus on today and get better today, and our kids have bought into that.”
•Region: 8-A Public
•All-time record: 618-309-20
•Accomplishments: two state championships, 17 region championships
•Head coach: Michael Brown (eighth year at Commerce, 62-23)
•2019 record: 9-3
•Key players: Payton Freeman, Sr., OL; Bo Childers, Sr., OL-DL-Punter; William Suber, Sr., OL-DL; Tyelon Brock, Sr., RB-DB; Michael Sherman, Sr., RB-DB; Trey Huff, So., QB-DB; David King, Sr., TE-LB; Shawn Cunningham, Sr., WR-DB; Jake Frates, Sr., WR-LB; Elijah Burns, Sr., FB-LB; Dreylan Martin, Jr., RB-DB; Gray Holbrook, Sr., LB-RB; Chauncey Jackson, Sr., DL-OL; Mason Gaddis, Jr., OL-DL; Eyrck Diaz, Sr., K; Gaven Dawley, Sr., DB
•Strengths: Commerce returns experience on an offensive line led by Payton Freeman — a preseason all-state selection — along with two of its top slot backs and multiple players on defense. But perhaps the team’s biggest strength is its 20-man senior class, one of the largest ever for the Tigers.
•Mark your calendar: The Tigers take on Lincoln County on Nov. 20 in a marquee matchup between traditional Class A powerhouses. A region title could possibly be on the line, but a Nov. 13 matchup with Washington-Wilkes will factor heavily into determining that. Commerce also takes on former region rival Athens Academy Sept. 18 in what will be a high-profile Region 8-A Public vs. Region 8-A Private showdown.
•Outlook: The Tigers, who are celebrating the 20-year anniversary of their 2000 state title run, are well-stocked senior leadership and a number of returning players at skill positions and along the line of scrimmage. Commerce faces a new region this year, one without Prince Avenue and Athens Academy due to a complete public-private split, but one that will include Lincoln County and Washington-Wilkes. Though the team is breaking in new starters at quarterback and fullback, this could be another special season for the Commerce Tigers, who are averaging over nine wins a year since 2014.
New QB leads Tiger offense
Not only does Commerce have to replace a three-year starter and all-region performer in Nate Ray, they must replace a signal caller who quarterbacked the Tigers to a 27-9 record in that span, including three playoff wins.
“We’ll have some big shoes to fill there,” Commerce coach Michael Brown said.
That job goes to sophomore Trey Huff. Huff takes over as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, where he’s been praised by Brown for both his ability and football smarts.
“He is a very talented kid, has a high football IQ, so we’re excited about him and where he is right now,” Brown said.
The Tigers’ triple option attack will also feature a couple of new faces at fullback following the graduation of Sam Roach (935 yards rushing in 2019). Dreylan Martin (215 yards rushing in 2019) and Elijah Burns will both see time there, with each bringing a different skill set. Martin is a faster, quicker back, while Burns has speed but is the bigger, burlier running back.
“They kind of give you a 1-2 punch,” Brown said.
But Commerce’s offense will have continuity with Tyelon Brock (688 yards on 44 carries, 15.6 yards per attempt in 2019) and Michael Sherman (241 yards on 29 carries in 2019) returning as starters at slot back. Brown said Brock, an all-region selection in 8-A in 2019, could be one of the most explosive players in the region.
“He’s got very good linear speed, but he is quick as a cat,” Brown said. “His change of direction — when he gets the ball in his hands, there’s no indecision about what he wants to do. He’s headed toward the goal line.”
Sammy Brown, a freshman, should be in the mix at slot back while doubling as a defensive back.
Elsewhere on the offense, Shawn Cunningham and Jake Frates are the Tigers’ top two receiving options. Both are tall targets with Cunningham at 6-1 and Frates at 6-4.
“They’re catching the ball well right now,” Brown said.
Brock is the team’s leading returning receiver, with 118 yards on four catches out of the backfield in 2019.
Anchoring the Tiger offensive line — which paved the way for 3,601 rushing yards last year — is Payton Freeman, a three-year starter at center and first-team all-region selection last year. He’s joined by Mason Gaddis, Bo Childers (an all-region honorable mention in 2019) and William Suber, who all started at some point last year. Lambdin Hardy, Hampton Hutto and Jonathan Orosco will all be in the rotation up front. David King returns as a starter at tight end.
“My expectations for them are very high,” Brown said of the offensive line. “They’re a good, hardworking group. They’re going to get better everyday.”
Defensively, Commerce lost two key interior lineman with the graduation of Trahvon Wiggins and Connor Kyle. But all-region performer Chauncey Jackson (35 tackles, 1 sack in 2019) returns as a starter at nose tackle, as does Childers (31 tackles in 2019).
Gray Holbrook (74 tackles in 2019) and Hunter Nunn (82 tackles in 2019), both of whom made strides in the weight room according to Brown, return at inside linebacker. “We feel good about both those guys,” Brown said.
Holbrook was an all-region honorable mention in 2019.
Burns (33 tackles, 4 sacks in 2019), also an all-region honorable mention last year, returns at outside linebacker.
Brock, Trey Huff (83 tackles, 2 interceptions in 2019) and Gaven Dawley (41 tackles in 2019) — all of whom started at some point last year — will lead the Tiger secondary.
Senior Eryck Diaz returns after going 5-of-5 on field goals last year and 52-of-54 on PATs. Diaz was a preseason all-state selection and a first-team all-region pick last year. Childers will handle the punting duties.
Football in a pandemic
What this season means …
Commerce’s 20-member senior class goes way back, well beyond freshman year.
“We’ve been playing with each other all of our lives,” said senior offensive and defensive lineman Bo Childers. “We’ve already got that bond … I think we’ve got a good group.”
Because of that, having an opportunity to play one more season amid uncertainty with coronavirus is one that Childers is not taking lightly. Commerce opens the season Friday (Sept. 4) at Banks County.
“In March, we were doing Zoom meetings — all kinds of stuff like that,” Childers said. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen. Now, that they say they’re going to let us go, I’m excited, and I’m ready to get the pads on and go lineup against Banks County.”
While the season has been green-lit by the GHSA for a Friday start, the seniors are aware that nothing is guaranteed this year.
“Starting senior season is already way different than any other season,” Childers said. “But just knowing there’s a possibility that something could come up, that something might could happen, we want to stay ready … We want to be the team that’s ready for our next game, whether it’s there or not.”