Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a six-part series examining the top players to watch for each Elmore County football team in 2019.
After its most successful season since 2011, the Elmore County football team will have to move forward without a large portion of its production. The Panthers graduated 17 seniors, 11 of which were starters on last year’s team.
Elmore County will have to replace a majority of the stars on the offensive side of the ball, including running back DJ Patrick. Patrick accounted for more than 40% of the Panthers’ points over the last three seasons and the team will have to look for a host of players to fill the role in 2019.
Brown is the leading returning rusher for the Panthers and while he still may not be the go-to back this season, he should see an expanded role on offense. He was used as a short-yardage back last season finishing with 189 yards and three touchdowns.
Brown saw his yards per carry improve by 1.3 yards between his sophomore and junior seasons. Elmore County coach Jordan Cantrell said he continues to see improvement from Brown and he should continue to be a role player on offense.
On defense, Brown started at linebacker for the Panthers last season and finished with 59 tackles and one fumble recovery. He also played a key role on the special teams unit, including an average of 15 yards on six kick returns.
Benson is another key part to the incoming senior class but he will likely see a bigger role on offense after Patrick’s departure. While matching that athleticism in the backfield may not be possible, Benson should give the Panthers more of a speed threat when he lines up at running back.
On just eight offensive touches last season, Benson accounted for 50 total yards plus finished with 36 return yards for the Panthers. He has not recorded a touchdown on the varsity level but Elmore County will look for that to change this year, as the team needs Benson to make an impact on both sides of the ball.
Benson will also return as one of the starting cornerbacks for the Panthers. He finished with 36 total tackles and recovered two fumbles in nine games during his junior season.
After losing five starters on the offensive and defensive line last season, the Panthers will be looking at some new faces to control the game in the trenches this season. Mann is not as new as some of the others but he is expected to gain more responsibilities during his junior season.
After starting at center last year, Mann is likely moving into the starting role at quick guard for the Panthers. Cantrell said there is still a lot to learn and with the Panthers’ run game being so important, there will be a lot of weight on Mann’s shoulders on the offensive side of the ball.
If that extra pressure was not enough, Cantrell said Mann will likely move into a starting role on the defensive line as well. He finished with just one tackle last season but he should be seeing a lot more playing time even when his team does not have the ball.
Dylan Weaver, Brody Ward, Payton Stephenson
Cantrell said every starting position is still open during the summer and that is very clear with the starting quarterback role. After Austin Downey graduated, the Panthers only returned one player who has attempted a pass in his career.
Ward completed his only pass of his sophomore season for a 13-yard touchdown in a non-region game against Dallas County. While one pass may not seem like a lot of experience, he still holds the edge over Weaver and Stephenson, neither of whom were on the roster last season.
Cantrell said all three players have been getting reps during spring and summer workouts but he is still waiting for one of them to separate themselves from the pack. He said the Panthers are looking for someone who can operate the offense, manage the game and get the ball downfield when they need him to.