For a program like Central, it’s not unfair to say that 2012 was a bit of a disappointment by its standards.
There were good moments, sure (see: 27-14 win over Carver-Montgomery), but those were mixed in with head-scratchers like blowing a two-possession lead in the final minutes against Auburn.
This season, however, is about consistency, coach Woodrow Lowe said, and that’s something the coaches have been preaching to players from spring practice, forward.
“We’ve got to be more consistent,” Lowe said. “We’ve got some really good players who are learning and willing to learn. We just need to be more consistent in what we do on Friday nights.”
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In a region like the one the Red Devils play in, that is beyond important. Two teams from Class 6A, Region 3, Opelika and Auburn, played in the state semifinals last year, with the Bulldogs advancing to the final where they lost to Hoover. Another, Carver-Montgomery, was among the best in the state all year. As good as Central was, it was playing for its playoff life in the regular-season finale against Smiths Station.
That’s a scenario the Red Devils would like to avoid this season.
When you talk about Central’s offense, you have to start with do-it-all athlete Traveon Samuel. The running back/wide receiver/occasional wildcat quarterback can line up anywhere on the field and is an instant threat to get behind a defense and score.
Other coaches in the region have expressed their dread over trying to stop Samuel, who as a junior has already garnered scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Ohio State, among others.
When Samuel isn’t lining up in the backfield, the Red Devils will feature two 5-foot-9 backs in Ryan Humphrey and Kenneth Thomas, who rushed for 526 yards and 305 yards, respectively, last season.
Lowe said he likes his situation at running back.
“We’ve got a lot of speed,” he said. “We’ve got some versatile players, some guys there who are going to be very good. Tra Samuel is just an incredibly versatile player.”
At wide receiver, along with Samuel when he plays outside, will be senior Khaled Berklin and sophomore Quan Weaver. Both receivers have good size. Berklin was a threat last year, notching 264 yards receiving. He only snagged 14 passes, but five of those went for touchdowns.
There was some turnover on the offensive line as the Red Devils lost mainstays Jeremiah Payne and Cameron Fraser, but the unit still has decent size and experience. It will be filled by tackles Chance Collins and Joe Jones, guards Vertaio Wilson and Ethan Calhoun, and center Hunter Clayton. Three of the five, Collins, Wilson and Calhoun, are seniors. Tight end will be covered by senior Jeron Jones.
“I think we’ve got some good, intense competition going on there,” Lowe said. “I like the way the guys are progressing and listening to what we’re telling them. They’re trying to get better every time out.”
The key unknown is quarterback Ethan Baber, in his first year as an everyday starter. He played in one game last season, the playoff game against Spain Park, and completed half of his passes despite facing a constant barrage in the pass rush.
Lowe said he likes Baber’s progression, despite the quarterback sitting out most of the summer due to a hit he took in the team’s spring game against Hoover.
“Baber’s doing great,” Lowe said. “He is at home when the lights come on. Sometimes that experience can overcome inexperience.”
Central’s defense remained relatively intact this season, returning seven of its starters from a season ago.
Quinn Johnson and Walter Prichett will start at the defensive end positions. The two combined for 66 tackles and six sacks last year, with Johnson forcing four fumbles.
At defensive tackle, the Red Devils will rotate J’Lan Carson, Jeruel Hunter, Jordan Strong and Camarcus Williams.
Linebacker is where you could see some new faces. Senior Kendrick Hillian contributed 35 tackles last season, but both sophomore Toron Morten and Markail Benton would be new to the lineup.
Christian Campbell is the main returning face, a senior safety who racked up 81 tackles and three interceptions last season. He will be joined by Darius King and Chris James at safety, and Josh Morgan, Joseph Ray and John Broussard will get most of the looks at cornerback.
“We’re just looking to get more reps for these guys and develop some leadership,” Lowe said. “We’ve got some guys that are doing it well.”
Lowe said that in his four years at Central, no two years have been the same. He doesn’t expect that trend to change this season.
A lot of the team’s success will depend on its ability to develop talent and intangibles, such as chemistry.
Lowe said that the players knew what the expectations were of them, especially playing in a tough region. He wouldn’t make any predictions for what his team would or wouldn’t do, but he knows as well as anybody that making the playoffs out of this region would give his team a chance to succeed in the playoffs.
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.