No name has been more predominant than Tee Higgins’ over the past few years.
The 6-foot-5, 190-pound athlete exceled on both the football field and basketball court for Oak Ridge High School, turning East Tennessee’s preps scene into his own personal playground.
He won back-to-back Class 5A Mr. Football awards and was a five-star wide receiver that was named to the Under Armour All-America Game before enrolling at Clemson this summer.
Higgins’ departure ushers in a new era for Oak Ridge, one that will not have the same degree of fanfare, but could be beneficial to the Wildcats in the 2017 season.
“We’re not really going to adjust what we do at all not having Tee,” Oak Ridge football coach Joe Gaddis said. “I don’t know how you can say it helps you to lose Tee Higgins, but I think offensively we’ll be more balanced. We’ll spread the ball a little better, and that may lead to us being a little bit more difficult to defend because last year, when you have a guy like Tee, you want to give him the ball as much as possible, and sometimes we probably forced it to Tee when we would have been better served to get it to somebody else.”
Oak Ridge will have its first glimpse of life without Higgins when it hosts Hardin Valley on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
That existence will likely feature a large dose of junior running back Jordan Graham, who rushed for 1,210 yards and 14 touchdowns on 113 carries last season.
“He brings another level to say the least,” senior quarterback Johnny Stewart said. “He can run, catch and do just about everything you need. He’s very versatile and brings a different element to our team.”
Stewart enters his second year as the Wildcats starting quarterback after completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 1,620 yards last season. More than half of those completions and yards went to Higgins, who registered 64 catches for 944 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior.
Losing his main target from a year ago, however, is not that big a concern for Stewart.
“We have a lot of talent coming back to replace him, so it’s not as big a loss as people think,” Stewart said.
One of those players is likely to be Stewart’s new favorite target, senior wide receiver Caleb Martin.
They may not share the same hype, but the similarities between Higgins and Martin are there, namely because of the Eastern Kentucky commits long and athletic build — he is listed at 6-foot-4, 191 pounds.
“It’s pretty exciting to know that I’m going to have a lot of pressure on me because I grew up with pressure on me and I grew up being the man, so it’s a role that I’m very used to and comfortable with,” Martin said.
The star of Higgins may no longer be around, but that is not stopping the Wildcats from striving to maintain the same success when he was.
“At Oak Ridge — and I’m glad this is the case — that pressure is always there because our tradition is so great and we have very high expectations every year, no matter who we have,” Gaddis said. “Our schedule is much tougher, but we obviously want to win the region and go as deep in the playoffs as possible.
“What’s going to happen is largely dependent on the development of our offensive line — which is a yearly thing it seems — and our defensive line, which outside of our nose guard is new. If we can do that, we can make a deep run in the playoffs.”