GAYLESVILLE – The Gaylesville Trojans didn’t have too many bright spots during the 2019 football season. They were bitten early by the injury bug, which caused a domino effect in the lineup throughout the course of the year, resulting in a 2-8 season.
However, they did discover a breakout performer in now-senior all-purpose player DJ Lee.
Lee ran for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns on 227 carries last season. He also threw for 336 yards and four scores. As a defensive back, Lee led the team with 82 total tackles (62 solo), including 12 for lost yardage with five fumble recoveries, four sacks, and two interceptions. He was selected as a first-team all-state selection at defensive back by the Alabama Sports Writers Association.
“You’ve got to be open to anything, no matter what happens,” Lee said. “When Tyler (Bentheimer) went down last year (to a knee injury in the season-opening win at Asbury), that was a huge setback for us, but it gave a lot of the players more playing time. We only had four people who came back last year that actually played in a game, but now we’ve got 11 starters who have played actual football who are ready to play. I think it made everybody mature up and made us better as a whole.”
Second-year Trojan head coach Brian Knapp anticipates Lee – who is listed at just 5-foot-8, 155 pounds – having another big year.
“He has the heart of a lion. He’s obviously the bell cow,” Knapp said of the diminutive Lee. “I’m going to give it to him early and often. He can punt. He can placekick. He can tackle. He had some interceptions last year. He was a kickoff returner. He totes the ball all the time. His skill set is so unique, but then you put his will to compete and try to win, it starts with him.”
Knapp is hopeful to surround Lee with a lot of healthy Trojans, including Bentheimer.
Bentheimer said he’s been “patiently waiting” to get back on the field.
“I did rehab before I had surgery and came back a lot quicker than I was supposed to,” he said. “I got to play the last couple of games in basketball last year. I was real pumped for baseball, but then that was shut down. All this is going to do is make me better.
“If we can stay healthy and stay focused, we should be good. The whole team is pretty pumped for the season.”
“We’re fortunate enough that he went through his rehab and has had a great year in the weight room,” Knapp said of Bentheimer. “He’s a great kid with a great work ethic. We’re also looking for big things out of him.”
The Trojans also return two more seniors this season in Gage White and Reece Holley. White plays tight end and defensive end while Holley returns as the Trojans’ second leading tackler from a season ago.
Fullback/tight end Michael Reynolds, halfback/outside linebacker Hunter Penney and center Dalton Waits all return with experience as juniors. Knapp said he’s starting Reynolds this season at tackle.
“He’s very smart. He understands how to play multiple positions. He’ll be a big part of what we do,” Knapp said of Reynolds.
“We went through a lot of adversity last year, with a lot of people getting hurt, but we knew we weren’t losing many seniors, so we think this year might be our best year. I’m excited,” Reynolds said.
The Trojans also have experience returning from their sophomore class. Knapp said he expects to run behind 6-2, 280-pound lineman Briley Mitchell. Jordan Maynard started every game last season at guard, and Tanner Eads filled in for Bentheimer at quarterback while he was injured.
Gaylesville also welcomes sophomore Keylon Higgins to its lineup. Higgins was ineligible last season after moving in from Cedar Bluff.
“He’s 6-2, 240 and has a ton of raw potential,” Knapp said of Higgins. “He can be a difference maker. He doesn’t have a ton of playing experience, but he’s got a man’s body. We’re still working on him. We’re looking for big things out of Keylon.”
Seth Lee, another junior, started every game for the Trojans last season at cornerback. Freshmen Eli Bryson and Kyler Bradley also return after starting last season.
“We’ve got a lot of experience,” Knapp said. “We are bigger and we are stronger, but you know health has got to be on your side and you’ve got to catch a few breaks for things to kind of go your way.”
Gaylesville competes in Class 1A, Region 7 along with Appalachian, Cedar Bluff, Coosa Christian, Sumiton Christian, Valley Head and Woodville.
“Our goal is simple. We want to have a winning season and we want to vie for one of those playoff spots,” Knapp said. “That’s what we’ll work for. If we stay healthy and continue to improve throughout the year, we can achieve that.”