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File / The Herald Stanhope’s TJ Jackson said he believes his time at Stanhope has helped him prepare for the next level.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a six-part series which will focus on the top players to watch for each Elmore County football team leading up to the season.

Defense has always been the focus of the Stanhope Elmore football team and the squad’s success starts with the defensive line. The Mustangs lost an all-state defensive end from last year’s team but they are still stacked with talent that will anchor the team and be key to the success again in 2019.

Stanhope was one win away from a region championship last year and while the defense may see improvements this season, the offense will need to be the difference. Luckily for the Mustangs, they have several returning starters and a few newcomers who have gelled together as they look to lead Stanhope to its first playoff win since 2010.

T.J. Jackson

Stanhope coach Brian Bradford described Jackson as one of the hardest workers on the team and it shows on the field. Jackson finished with 24 tackles, including 13 for a loss and three sacks last year.

During Stanhope’s upset victory over Wetumpka last season, Jackson had a 40-yard fumble return for a touchdown to open the scoring. He finished with three forced fumbles.

Jackson committed to Troy earlier in the offseason and already has shown flashes proving he’s ready to play at the next level. The coaching staff has high expectations for him this season which could include a spot on the all-state team. 

William Whitlow Jr.

If Jackson was not enough to scare opposing offensive lines, Whitlow will be. As just a junior, Whitlow has picked up multiple Division I offers including one from Tennessee.

Whitlow was a force for the Mustangs last season, racking up 12 tackles for a loss, six sacks, a blocked punt and an interception. He often lines up on the outside of the line but he has a perfect combination of size and speed so he can cause a problem no matter where he lines up.

There will be more teams calling for Whitlow before he makes a decision on where to play college ball but before he gets there, Stanhope fans will get to enjoy watching him play on their team Friday nights. 

Jeremy Thompson

The linebacker corps was supposed to be the strength of the defense for the Mustangs last season and while it will not be considered a weakness, the surrounding areas should be improved. The defensive line has its obvious strengths but Thompson will be leading a strong and experienced secondary this season. 

Thompson mostly lined up as a cornerback last season but he will likely see time at safety this year as well. He finished with 23 tackles, including five for a loss, and added eight pass breakups as a junior.

Jalen Walker

It is not every day you find your new starting quarterback in a linebacker position drills but that is exactly what has happened for the Mustangs. Bradford said he liked the natural build Walker has and Walker was eager to learn the offense during the offseason.

The offense has rallied around its new quarterback and Walker has shown plenty of improvement during his limited action at the position. The Mustangs went through a trio of quarterbacks last season, each providing their own skillset, but Walker will hope to bring some stability to the table to take the offense to the next level this season.

Conner Bradford

Bradford will be one of Walker’s go-to receivers this season to help take off some of the pressure of becoming the new starting quarterback. Bradford is the leading returning receiver for the Mustangs after finishing his junior season with 26 receptions and five touchdowns.

The Mustangs are going to look to their rushing attack more often than not but Bradford has safe hands they can rely on on third downs and in the red zone. There will not be a lot of balls put in the air by Stanhope’s offense but you should expect a big chunk of them to be thrown in Bradford’s direction. 

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.