AHS Cougars Blend Speed, Toughness - TribPapers
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AHS Cougars Blend Speed, Toughness

Photo by Pete Zamplas.

AshevilleAsheville Cougars are dishing out more smash-mouth football to go with their usual singing speed and versatile skill.

Fiery Cort Radford is in his second season at the helm. He calls current Cougars “the fastest team I’ve ever coached.” In his debut this spring, AHS went 5-3 overall and 4-2 to finish in third place in the MAC and make the 3A playoffs. The Cougars beat Erwin 34-6 and came within a point of upsetting league champ Reynolds. Asheville dominated the MAC for a decade — culminating in winning a state title in 2005.

Huge Kadin Lynch (6-3, 284 sr.) wants to help write a golden new chapter in “our program’s history.” He points to how “the community pulls together to support us.” Star linebacker Micah Ward (6-1, 230 sr.) recalls how “I’d go to every game” when growing up. Versatile runner-receiver Tre McGahee (5-11, 155 sr.) said the team is like “family” with its camaraderie.

Coach Cort Radford.

Do not blink or you may miss Cougar ball carriers. Quarterback Khalil Conley (5-10, 170 jr.) ran a 4.53 at a summer combine at Duke. McGahee turned in a 4.56 then. “We can ‘roll,’” Coach Radford said. McGahee is adept in taking direct “wildcat” snaps near the end zone to fill in at QB. He subbed for an injured Conley for a game both in the spring and fall.

Left-handed thrower Conley made his mark mostly with his quick running around end. He dashed for 137 yards in cold rain in the spring opener versus TCR. Conley throws “lasers” and is developing more touch, Radford said. Conley’s prime task is to read and react to the opposing defense’s formation and pursuit to figure when it is best to keep the ball or to throw.

“He’s a lot more comfortable in the passing game,” Radford said. “He gained an understanding of what defenses are trying to take away, and where a hole is. We’re putting in more ‘reads’ this season. We’re asking him to read defenses, to figure when to pass and when to pull it (the football) in and run.”

McGahee is a go-to receiver. He said he enjoys running passing routes and catching passes downfield even more than running as a back. “Tre has very natural vision. He sees the crease” open up against the defense, Radford said. “Tre can do it all. He plays wide receiver, running back, quarterback and defensive back. He’s bouncing around everywhere” in various deployments.

AHS lines up as many as five receivers at once. They include swift Deshaun Whitmire (6-0, 170 jr.) and Heff Finley (6-1, 153 so.), Landon Miller (6-0, 180 jr.), and Noah Shaw (6-0, 183 fr.). TE Landon Miller (6-1, 175 sr.) is a sure-handed target.

Asheville above all strives to control the ball and clock. “We’ll pound the ball. We might run it 80 percent of the time” in some games, Radford said. “I hate passing. Four things can happen. Three are bad — a sack, incompletion, or ‘pick.’” Yet he said if defenses load up front then AHS will pass more than intended.

Fast backs are Caleb Madden (5-9, 155 sr.) and Jay Avery (5-9, 165 jr.). Jay is a nephew of Cougar great John Avery who played for ‘Ole Miss, was a first-round pick in 1998, and played in the NFL and CFL. D.J. Jones (5-10, 185 jr.) is a short-yardage plunger.

The line returns three starters in RT Lynch, LG Tanner Graham (6-1, 267 jr.) and LT Joseph Gates (6-2, 271 so.). Grads in ‘21 include LT Tama McDonough who now plays for Yale, TE Vas Paulk, and strong-legged placekicker Liam Boyd. Boyd’s successor is likely Xander White (5-10, 200 sr.).

Cougar senior stars include Micah Ward (44), Kadin Lynch (72) and Tre McGahee (2). Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The defense’s gem so far is CB Whitmire’s 55-yard pick six in the win over Brevard. He also scored on a run. MLBs are Ward and Otis Walton-Thach (6-2, 248 sr.), who is recovering from a torn ACL. Radford calls Ward “our defensive coach on the field. He gets everybody into the right spots.” He said Ward is a “physical specimen with one percent body fat. He’s our strongest in the weight room. And he runs a 4.7.”

Other standouts include DL Martavis “Tay” Davis (6-3, 232 jr.) and athletic CB Aeon Benjamin (5-11, 150 jr.). On defense “we’re undersized, so we gotta be fast,” Coach Radford said.

He sees the Cougars battling in the MAC race and quest for playoffs. The title is again “Reynolds’ — until someone takes it from them. After that, it’s pretty wide open.”

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