HARROGATE, Tenn. — With two weeks of practice down and working out in pads just around the corner, Cumberland Gap football coach Neal Pucciarelli is pleased with where his team is at for the most part.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors coming back and I’m pretty optimistic about the season,” Pucciarelli said. “I think the kids have had a good off season, we’ve worked pretty hard in the weight room and for the most part we’ve had good practices.”
He added that one key will be developing depth on defense. Cumberland Gap had some success on that side of the ball after making the switch last season to a more aggressive press coverage. But they also paid the price by giving up a few big plays and struggled at times to contain the running game, especially against some of their bigger district opponents.
Offensively the Panthers will be lined up in their familiar spread and the key there will be keeping senior quarterback Blake Franklin on the field. Franklin has shown the ability to put up big numbers both throwing and running the ball, but has missed significant portions of the last two seasons with various injuries.
“If we can keep Blake healthy and keep improving then I think we can be pretty good,” Pucciarelli said. “We’ve got a pretty good mix of some sophomores and juniors starting to contribute.
“We feel like we’re a little bit stronger at running back than we are at receiver, but the kids have caught it real well so far. We’ve got some experience with Wesley (Nance) and Jeremiah (Lorens) back at running back, Jordan Teague and Brandon Bailey also played some there. We’ve got four decent runners and most of our O-line back so I think the running game is going to be an area of strength and we just have to develop our receivers.”
Cumberland Gap is coming off a 3-7 campaign and on top of five seniors lost to graduation, the Panthers are also without three players who moved away and lineman Clayton McDaniel who was in a car wreck.
“Those are four players we were counting on so we’re working to try and find some depth. It’s a work in progress and, like I tell everybody, I think we can be pretty good but we’ve got to grow up between the ears,” said Pucciarelli.
The Panthers open the season on Aug. 17 at Wartburg Central.