When new Smiths Station football coach Jason Dukes accepted the position vacated by Mark Rose in February, he pointed to the past two seasons as a main reason the job was attractive to him.
The Panthers, who went 16 seasons without double-digit wins before posting a 10-3 record in 2013, proved to be more than competitive in a very difficult region in 2012-13, nearly taking the league crown last year.
Now, as Dukes oversees his first offseason with the team, his confidence in the team's direction continues to grow, despite the competitive level it will play at in the new Class 7A next year. The Panthers open the season at home against Americus-Sumter on Aug. 22.
"I'm very excited about the program," Dukes said after the team's practice on Tuesday. "They're willing to do what it takes to give us our best chance to be successful on the football field. These guys recognize our competition level is jumping up a step to 7A, the highest classification. We'll play teams like Auburn and Enterprise and Prattville. They understand the challenge, and its our job as coaches to get them ready to play."
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Dukes, who built his former team, Alpharetta (Ga.), into a region champion over the course of his five years at the helm, lamented the fact that the Panthers lost a handful of seniors who he said would have fit perfectly into his new offensive scheme.
He is leading the charge in rebuilding an offensive line that lost the majority of its starters, a job he is well-suited for considering his four years starting at right tackle for Georgia Tech (1991-95).
Despite the losses, Dukes pounded the hallways recruiting current students to join his football team, having enormous success. There are 99 players currently on roster, a significant step forward.
"There's not a jersey left," Dukes said. "If we can keep it that way, I'll be happy."
There is always some attrition from summer to fall, but Dukes also noted that some players who did not participate in the summer program will likely join up once school starts.
They will be behind the curve, particularly because of the implementation of a new offense, but the coach stressed the importance of having the numbers.
"Football, it's a numbers game," he said. "We've got a great school with a large student body to pull players from.
"In the past, I don't know that there's been as much sharing of athletes between sports. I believe athletes are athletes because they can do a lot of things well. It was one of my goals to get out there and recruit our hallways for good athletes."
As to the change in offensive scheme, Dukes said that while there were some growing pains, it wasn't anything drastic that the players couldn't keep up with.
Under Rose, the Panthers ran a run-heavy offense between the tackles, utilizing discipline and strength on the offensive line. Dukes said they will continue to use that to their advantage.
"(Rose) did a lot of great things in the running game and developed a lot of team toughness," he said. "From that standpoint, we want to keep that same toughness in the run game. But we want to be as balanced as we can. Our offense works best when we take what the defense gives us."
In other words, the team will pass the ball significantly more than in the past.
"From game to game, we may pass for 400 yards and run the ball for 90, or vice versa," Dukes said. "It depends on the situation that presents itself. From the standpoint of scheme, we'll be in four wide and three wide more than a Smiths Station team has probably every been. That'll be a new look."
Overall, the excitement level surrounding the Panthers football program continues to be high. The excitement of the players is matched by Dukes himself, who said he considers it to be a destination job.
"The administration has been forthcoming in helping me with the resources I need and hopefully in a short period we'll have a stadium right here on campus. That's our next step," he said. "I'm excited about the opportunities here. It's a destination for me, definitely not a stop-through. I'm happy and look forward to being here for a long time."