HARROGATE, Tenn. — After the team graduated 13 seniors who accounted for the bulk of the starting lineups on both sides of the ball, there is plenty of opportunity for younger and less experienced players to seize playing time for the Cumberland Gap Panthers in 2014.
Coach Corey Russell says a lot of those players have been working hard to take advantage of that opportunity.
“We’re going to be young this year with a big group of sophomores and we’ve got another great group of seniors. So we’re kind of top and bottom heavy with not too many there in the middle,” he said. “We’ve had a really good summer so far. We had a fantastic off season with the guys lifting weights. The guys that have been here have been working extremely hard and we’re looking forward to having a good season.”
The Panthers stumbled down the stretch as they finished last season on a six-game losing streak and went 2-8 in Russell’s first season as head coach.
Turnovers played a big role in most of those losses and limiting them will be key if the team is going to turn that record around.
“It’s nothing special. We just have to keep doing the right things and working hard. The thing that killed us last year was our turnover margin. We finished the year at about minus-14 and that’s not good,” Russell said. “Taking care of the football is something we’ve got to do a lot better job of this year and trying not to put ourselves in bad situations. As long as the guys keep doing what they’re doing now, keep working hard and buying in to what we’re teaching then we’re going to be good to go.”
The team will have a new defensive coordinator this season in Jerton Evans, who provided a lot of enthusiasm and hands-on teaching during Wednesday morning’s practice. The defense he’s installing features a variety of zone coverages.
There will be changes on the offensive side of the ball as the Panthers move away from the four-wide, shot-gun spread formation that has been their trademark for the past several seasons. Sophomore Ethan Ellison will be the new quarterback.
“We’re throwing in some different looks offensively so we may not look the same as Cumberland Gap teams in the past. We just want to be able to better utilize some of our strengths that we have this year,” Russell said. “Ethan is doing really well, he comes out to practice and tries to get better every day. He’ll be a young kid so I’m sure he’s going to take some lumps this year, but that’s going to happen. You just have to roll with that and learn as you go and he’s doing a great job of doing that so far.”
Cumberland Gap will be hosting a 7-on-7 competition today starting at 4:30 p.m. with Claiborne, Middlesboro, and possible Bell County among the teams scheduled to participate. The Panthers will host Campbell County in their regular season opener on Aug. 22.