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File / Tallapoosa Publishers Elmore County will be looking to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Elmore County is losing more than three-fourths of its scoring production and returns only 17 percent of its total offense from last season but the Panthers are entering the 2019 season with confidence. ECHS coach Jordan Cantrell saw 17 seniors graduate from his first team in Eclectic and now he’ll be forced to work with small group of players but he believes it is ready to compete.

“We’re all more comfortable here,” Cantrell said. “Now we have some guys coming back that we’ve grown close to and they know the expectations. Not a lot of experience but they’ve turned into a gritty group and we’ll take that going forward.”

Despite having a limited number of returning players, Cantrell said many players who were on the team last season are hungry to get back on the field after falling just short of the postseason again. The Panthers have now missed the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, the longest drought in program history.

Despite having its most successful season since 2011, Elmore County came up on the short end of a three-way tiebreaker and was pushed out of the playoffs. While the main goal is a return to the postseason, Cantrell said there are many underlying goals the team has to reach before thinking about that.

“We’re looking to get better and we’re looking to work hard,” Cantrell said. “Last year was devastating but we controlled our destiny… That left it in the hands of a tiebreaker and that was our fault. Now it’s a new year though and we’re looking for Marbury.”

With the focus on a new season, the biggest question mark the Panthers are facing is who will replace DJ Patrick. Lapatrick Brown is the only returning player with more than five carries last season, finishing with 189 rushing yards and two touchdowns as a junior.

Brown is expected to get a bulk of the work in the backfield but he will be complemented by Keshawn Benson and Cole Boothe. Nathan Jones will take on the role of fullback which the Panthers plan to use almost every play.

“Every year, you have to change according to your personnel,” Cantrell said. “DJ was very explosive, he could break one at any minute. This year, we have a lot of workhorses in the backfield… They’re a different kind of back than DJ was so those guys are willing to work and put in the time. They’re not afraid to get dirty and that’s what our team is going to have to have to win football games.”

The Panthers will also need to replace their starting quarterback and they are hoping for more production out of the position. As a team, Elmore County completed just 33.6 percent of its passes lasts season and finished with a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Dylan Weaver and Brody Ward are still competing for the starting job and both will likely see snaps in the season opener against Marbury. Ward is the only returning player to record a pass attempt last season, completing a 13-yard touchdown against Dallas County.

“We’re seeing who’s going to be the man for the job,” Cantrell said. “Both of them will be able to contribute to the team. Whoever wins the quarterback, the other one will be able to contribute somewhere else. They’re still getting about equal reps in practice.”

“Our offensive line, which I include our tight end in the offensive line, is bringing back a good bit of experience. I feel like that will be an asset for us. We lost two off of there but some of the others filled in at times so we feel good about that.”

Bryson Caudle and Coby Mann return as starters on the line while Hayden Holton will be a starting tight end. The three other starting positions have not been filled yet. Taylor Atkinson, Dylan Brown, Sam Jones and Tanner Bolt are among those competing to start at the line of scrimmage on both sides.

Keith Ballard and Ethan Geer will see time at linebacker for the Panthers, joining Mann, Brown and Boothe. Benson is the only returning starter in the secondary but he is hoping to get help from Cody Lamb and Zach Jones.

“There’s a lot of questions to still be answered there,” Cantrell said. “We have some new personnel and they are going to have to answer the call.”

The Panthers do not start their season until they host Marbury in Week 1 but Cantrell said he wants his players to already have the mindset of a game week. He said the players have been working together toward the same goal and he knows they will be focused once they hit the field.

“We’re not promising playoffs or anything; we’re thinking about just one game,” Cantrell said. “But what makes this group special, they work really hard. There’s just 35 of them and a lot of other squads have more than that but we’ve made it to where we want sold out guys to play football here. They bring something special to practice and the weight room every day.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.