Smiths Station football coach Mark Rose said he comes from the “Bear Bryant and Pat Dye school of football,” that is, he’ll swear his team isn’t close to where it needs to be even if it is pretty far along.
Even if he won’t say it outright, though, his responses when asked about his team exude a cautious optimism about the 2013 season.
“We had our best team since I’ve been here last year. We’ve just got to get over the hump,” said Rose when asked about the team’s prospects this season, referencing his 2012 team that fell one region win short of the playoffs.
“We’ve got more team speed than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said when talking about the defense.
He spoke very positively about his skill guys on offense, especially quarterback Jerrell Gilmore, who is in his third year as the starting quarterback. He likes his wide receivers and running backs and his offensive line should be strong, he said. His outside linebackers are quick and his secondary is completely intact.
The biggest problem for the season is navigating one of the toughest regions in Alabama, but even that prepares a team for the postseason if it can manage to snag one of the top four spots.
It was cautious optimism, but it was optimism nonetheless.
Nine starters back on offense, including all of the skill positions, is reason to make any coach optimistic. When you consider the length of the experience, it can make a coach downright giddy.
Gilmore has started at quarterback for two years already, along with wide receiver Johnny Woods who has led the team in receiving yards each of the past two seasons. Senior running backs J.J. Dancy and Devante Marshall, who had 711 yards and 387 yards rushing in 2012, respectively, will also be back.
Joining Woods at receiver is Ledarion Heath, who only had 150 yards receiving last year but is 6-foot-4, 190 pounds and runs a 4.5, according to Rose.
“He grew so fast, he had some trouble catching the ball, but he’s catching everything now,” Rose said. “He just kept working. He can really go up and get it. Johnny will get a lot of doubles. It’s hard to double both of them.”
Gilmore, who Rose praised for his ability to protect the football, said having guys like that at wide receiver helps him in the passing game tremendously.
“Oh, yeah,” he said with a smile. “They give you a good target. If one of them is doubled, you can trust the other guy to go up and get it.”
Levi White will play tight end, and Justin Wimberly, Devan Miller and center John Kittrell will return on the line. Djuan Simmons and Ladarius Wilson will join the line this season.
Rose called Wimberly the strongest player he’s coached in 22 years, and he said he likes the makeup of the line.
The defense returns nearly as much, seven guys including everybody in the secondary.
Rose singled out the linebacker corps as a strength, praising the athleticism of his outside linebackers. Woods, Anfernee Moffett, Amonte Caban and Marcus Maddox will fill that group. Moffett recorded 115 total tackles, including 50 solo, 11 for loss and four forced fumbles last season.
Up front, Rose said three offensive linemen would rotate at the nose, with Wimberly getting the majority of the snaps. Julian Monds and Clay Edmonds will both play roles at the end positions.
The secondary will be filled with safeties Nigel Lawrence and Tre Trimble and corners Tre Harris and Kenny Wimberly.
“We’ve just got more team speed here than we’ve ever had,” Rose said.
The unit was solid most of the season last year, but was never really great. As Rose said about the rest of the team, he needs it to get over the hump this season to win some of the tougher region contests that will make or break its playoff chances.
Rose never gave away his feelings on his teams chances, but he listed a lot of things that he liked.
The team appears to be better, based on the eye test, the experience and Rose’s estimation of its progress.
The region is tough, as always, considering teams like Auburn, Opelika, Carver-Montgomery and Central, but the Panthers feel like they’ve entered that mix as well.
Gilmore said he thought his team could contend in the region and, as importantly, against rival Central. If the Panthers can do that, 2013 will be a successful year.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.