This is the second in an 18 part series previewing football teams around the Bi-City. Coming Monday: Calvary Christian.
School: Smiths Station
2014 record: 5-5
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Key players: Dalton Sinquefield, Khalil Johnson, Austin Taylor, Vada King, Renold Williams
Key game: Oct. 2 at Central
Outlook: At one point during the 2014 season, Smiths Station was 5-1 and ranked No. 8 in the state of Alabama. The team had experienced one hiccup against Prattville — a 48-0 loss — but that still appeared more aberration than a predictor of what was to come in the second half of the season.
The Panthers dropped their final four games of the season, however, and fell short of the playoffs after a promising start. The reasons for the collapse vary. There were injuries, yes, but coach Jason Dukes also cited a lack of intensity down the stretch. It was a snowball effect that the team couldn’t escape.
Dukes hopes to change that in his second year at the helm.
“We’ve got everything in place now in our second year,” he said. “We’ve gone through a spring, a season and another spring together. Now there’s a firm understanding of what we’re trying to do.”
Offensively, he’s got his starting quarterback returning for his senior season. Dalton Sinquefield showed signs on plenty of occasions last year that he could handle the high-flying aerial attack that Dukes likes to run. He lacked consistency in his first season under center, though. Dukes said he’s already seen improvement in that area.
“We feel like he’s taken positive steps,” Dukes said. “Last year was up and down. When he was rolling, he’d be great. Sometimes when he struggled early, he’d continue to struggle. Now, understanding what we're trying to do, he can be a little more patient and take what the defense is giving him.”
Sinquefield missed spring practice during the baseball team’s run to a state championship, but Dukes said he’s worked hard over the summer to catch up. Backup quarterback Jay Roberts has pushed Sinquefield, Dukes said, and he sees positives from having that sort of competition at the quarterback position.
Dukes will also rely on returning seniors like running back Khalil Johnson and wide receiver Austin Taylor to lead the way. Taylor was one of the leading receivers last year, and Dukes sees him as one of the main pieces to the passing game this year.
Two years ago, the Panthers utilized an experienced offensive line to help create a punishing ground attack. Last year, the line was nearly entirely rebuilt, causing problems in the offense down the stretch. Dukes said the unit is more experienced this year and prepared to shoulder the load.
“When you can protect, it opens up your playbook so much more,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll allow us to be pretty balanced, as well.”
Defensively, the name that stands out is Vada King, who has been one of the most prolific performers for the Panthers for the past two seasons. Dukes said he thinks they may have misused King to an extent, playing him in space more rather than allowing him to attack the passer.
“He’s a very explosive player, and I think he can provide a lot of pressure on the passer,” Dukes said.
Renold Williams will also be key in the defensive backfield.
“He was probably our best corner last year,” Dukes said. “He’ll be the same this year.”
Dukes blamed big plays for a large portion of the defense’s struggles last year. The Prattville, Central and Auburn games got out of hand, he said, because of an inability to prevent long gains.
“Every coach from Pop Warner to the NFL is always talking about not giving up the big play,” Dukes said. “If we can do that, we can have more opportunities for takeaways and getting off the field.”
The Panthers open their season on Aug. 21 at Americus-Sumter (Ga.).
Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.