This is the 15th in a series previewing football teams in the Bi-City area. Coming Monday: Russell County
By DAVID MITCHELL
The Smiths Station football team might not have the age, but it certainly has the experience.
Despite lacking a large senior class, the Panthers return seven starters on each side of the ball and a host of juniors who had significant playing time as sophomores a season ago.
"They're in good shape as far as playing experience goes," coach Mark Rose said of his junior class. "And the seniors, they were eighth-graders when I got here. The juniors were in seventh grade. So they've been running the same stuff all these years, and that helps with continuity."
That's certainly a key factor for a team that is trying to improve on its 4-6 record from a year ago. Chalk that up to inexperience, Rose said.
"We've made a lot of progress from last year," he said. "We've gotten stronger and more crisp. They're way ahead of where they were last year."
Take quarterback Jerell Gilmore, for example. The junior started 10 games in his sophomore season and has made plenty of strides during the offseason.
Rose said he is one of the team's harder workers and hasn't missed a workout since he joined in seventh grade.
"He improved all last year," Rose said. "Now, he's a lot stronger and, obviously, more experienced. We expect some big things."
Gilmore said he feels more comfortable this year.
"Last year, everything felt fast-paced," he said. "But you get used to it a little bit."
Joining Gilmore on offense will be speedy running backs J.J. Dancy and Devonte Marshall, who, Rose said, has breakaway 4.4-speed. Add Johnny Woods at wide receiver, the leader of the unit last season, and the skill positions look to be in fine shape.
On the offensive line, the Panthers have several returning starters. Zach Sidman and Jacob Smith each started 10 games as a junior. Justin Wimberly started 11 as a sophomore.
"We've got a lot more experience this year," Smith said. "We've put in a lot of work."
And Rose feels just as good about his defense.
Led by a Dandy Dozen pick, defensive end Doniaven Kilpatrick, the defensive unit has returning in-game experience.
Tim Hester, a strong linebacker, will be back for his third season as a starter. In addition to being a force in the front seven, he is 54-0 and a state champion in wrestling.
Marshall and Woods will play in the secondary, along with Trey Harris, who started 10 games last season.
"We definitely feel like it's the fastest defense we've had since I've been here," Rose said.
Woods had a similar assessment.
"We're a lot more athletic," he said.
When a team returns that much experience and sees significant progress during the offseason, an increase in wins is expected.
So the Panthers will expect a lot out of themselves when their first game against Enterprise rolls around Friday.
"We want to win," Sidman said.
"Everybody's playing hard. We just have to get ready for Enterprise."
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571
Head coach: Mark Rose
Region: Region 3-AAAAAA
Last season's record: 4-6, 2-4 in Region 3-AAAAAA
Last season's playoff record: 0-0
Aug. 31 at Enterprise 8 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Lanier 8 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Auburn 8 p.m.
Sept. 21 Jeff Davis 8 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Beauregard 8 p.m.
Oct. 5 R.E. Lee 8 p.m.
Oct. 12 Opelika 8 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Carver-Mont. 8 p.m.
Oct. 26 Central 8 p.m.
Nov. 2 Valley 8 p.m.