HARROGATE, Tenn. — A lot went wrong for the Cumberland Gap Panthers in 2013 as they dropped their final six games to finish with a 2-8 record. This year they’re turning page with a new look on offense and five underclassmen starting on both sides of the ball.
“I think we can be very successful this year. Even though we’re a young team, I feel like we’re very strong up front and if you can control the line of scrimmage that makes life a lot easier,” Panther head coach Corey Russell said. “Everyday we have to try to get a little better than were the day before. As long as we keep doing that we’ll be okay.”
A minus 14 turnover margin was Cumberland Gap’s biggest downfall last year. In an effort to limit those miscues and to take advantage of an experienced offensive line and running backs, the team has switched from the spread to an I formation as their base offense.
“I think they guys have done a great job throughout the spring and summer of understanding how we want to play in the new style of offense. They’ve done a good job with the x’s and o’s,” Russell said. “It’s going to be a different look than Cumberland Gap teams have had in the past, but I think it’s better suited to the type of kids that we have year-in and year-out. I think it’s something we can be very successful with.”
Three starters return along the offensive line: seniors Blake Fleeman at left guard, Preston Provins at right guard and Micah Medley at right tackle. They’ll be joined by sophomores Dean Turner at left tackle and Joe Mills at center.
Senior Brandon Bailey is the leading returning rusher from last year’s team and the tailback figures to have a big year running behind that group along with a tight end and lead blocker.
“With Brandon, you hate that he’s a senior because it’s the last year we’ll have him. He’s played all four years and he’s a great kid with a great work ethic and he’s a great ballplayer as well,” Russell said. “He’s just one of those guys that has a nose for the football when he’s on defense. When he runs the ball, he runs it with a purpose. He’s a tough, physical runner and we expect some big things from Brandon this season.”
Senior Devon Helton will start at fullback and also see time at tight end in certain sets. Sophomore Christian Crowder will be the primary tight end. Senior Ryker Gent will spell both Bailey and Helton in the backfield with junior Addison Welch also providing a chance of pace.
Sophomore Ethan Ellison will take over as the starting quarterback. Outside the Panthers will start senor Sam Gulley at one receiver and sophomore Bryce Rogers at the other. Senior Kyle Evans and sophomore Adam Mullins will also rotate in as receivers.
“We’ve got a young quarterback that I’m asking to manage the game. He doesn’t have to be an All-Star quarterback every night, just take care of the football. That’s something we’re very focused on this year because last year we turned the ball over way too many times,” Russell added.
On the other side of the ball, Cumberland Gap will be running a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Jerton Evans. Facing the I in practice instead of the spread has also helped that unit develop a more physical style.
There’s plenty of size up front with junior Dawson Smiddy, sophomore Maxwell Gibbons and freshman Sam Gibbons starting at three spots with Fleeman and Medley sharing time at the other along the line.
Bailey leads a veteran group of linebackers and anchors things in the middle of the field. He’ll be flanked by Gent and Helton on the outside.
Sophomores Adam Mullins and Andrew Dishner are the safeties with sophomore Jordan Burnett and Kyle Evans rotating in. Gulley and Rogers will start at the corners with Welch providing depth at those spots.
“Those guys on the O-line along with the running backs and linebackers are our older guys that have played the most football. Elsewhere, we’ve got some young kids in the secondary and at receiver,” Russell said. “Those guys have done a great job in practice so far but they may not have a whole lot of game experience under their belt. I expect them to get better as the season goes on.”
Helton has been outstanding over the past three seasons as the team’s kicker and punter. Mullins, Gulley and junior Chase Rains are the primary return men.
The Panthers open the season at home on Friday against Campbell County.
Russell says that in spite of their youth, the team has the talent to compete with just about everybody in their district.
“As long as we just don’t beat ourselves we’ll be okay. Last year we got in situations in several games where we had turnovers early and missed opportunities. It’s tough to win games when you spot the other team a couple of touchdowns and have to play from behind,” he said.
“It’s nothing special. If we go out and play good fundamental football we should have a chance to be one of the top teams in our conference and that’s what we expect to be.”
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Cumberland Gap Panthers
|2014 CGHS Schedule|
|Aug. 22||vs. Campbell County||7:30 p.m.|
|Aug. 29||at North Greene||7:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 5||at Claiborne*||7:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 12||vs. Sullivan East||7:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 19||at West Greene*||7:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 26||at Gatlinburg-Pittman||7:30 p.m.|
|Oct. 3||vs. Chuckey-Doak*||7:30 p.m.|
|Oct. 17||vs. Grainger*||7:30 p.m.|
|Oct. 24||vs. Scott||7:30 p.m.|
|Oct. 31||at Greeneville*||7:30 p.m.|
|* District 2-AA game|