Way-Too-Early football predictions; Part 4

Nicholas Blackburn shared the running back duties last season for Pelham, but will see an increased share of touches in 2016. (File)

Nicholas Blackburn shared the running back duties last season for Pelham, but will see an increased share of touches in 2016. (File)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

Okay let’s keep this moving. We’ve looked at three teams so far in our prediction tour around the county, and now it’s time for a fourth. The first three stops all focused on the U.S. 280 area, so let’s change the focus for a moment. For part four, we’re taking a look at the Pelham Panthers.

Last year was a predictably tough year for Pelham. The Panthers, who finished 1-9 and averaged 14 points per contest in 2015, had 11 seniors on that 69-man roster, and were young and inexperienced at almost every position. Now, in Tom Causey’s second year with the program, the Pelham roster is overwhelmingly a year older, wiser and stronger. Age and experience are two elements working in this teams’ favor when compared with last year’s bunch, but they are not the only ones.

For one, Causey and his players have had time to get familiar with each other. Last season, Causey did not have his entire coaching staff in place until well into the summer, which hamstringed the Panthers from the jump. It’s hard to play for/coach a team when everyone is still learning each other’s names the week before the first game. For another, the Panthers have made great strides in the weight room. When Causey got to Pelham, weightlifting had all but been abandoned, and the Panthers had to spend time getting out of that hole. Now, the Panthers are back to even par with most of the teams they will play.

However, rebuilding a program takes time, and is not a feat that can be accomplished in 12 months. The playoffs are still a long way off, and probably nothing more than a pipe dream at this point, but Causey and the Panthers are continuing to make strides in the right direction. Let’s take a look at some of the key players for Pelham heading into this year.

At the quarterback position, Pelham is back to where it was this time last year before Griffin Rivers walked into Causey’s office. Rivers, who transferred from Homewood to Pelham in late July, came into the Panthers system and quickly became the starting quarterback in his senior year. Now Rivers has graduated, and the Panthers will have a new man under center in Eli Hudson, who was the frontrunner for the job last summer as well before Rivers arrived. Hudson spent last year, his junior year, as a receiver in Pelham’s spread offense, and will transition to quarterback for his final prep season. Standing at roughly 5-feet-9-inches, Hudson is far from a physically imposing presence in the pocket, but has quick feet, a capable arm and has taken control of the huddle.

Helping Hudson’s transition from receiver to quarterback will be Pelham’s stable of receivers returning this year. Kasey Clark, Pelham’s leading receiver from last season, is back, as are Vidal Solito, Seth Wright and Brandon Sledge. Edward Gipson, who started every game for Pelham as a freshman at safety last season and is one of the best athletes on the team, is also making the transition to receiver. With the combination of those four, along with newcomers Seth Torman and Tyler Wages, Pelham has a real chance to do some damage in the passing game this year.

In the running game, Gio Adan is gone, which leaves more room for Nicholas Blackburn to take a larger role in the offense. Blackburn split carries with Adan last year, and will now split carries with Homewood transfer Derrick Bush, who had to sit out last season after switching schools. Between Blackburn and Bush, the Pelham running game has potential to round out a much-improved offense.

On defense Pelham benefits greatly from the return of unquestioned leader Jon Drake. Drake, who finished last season with 122 tackles last season, the second-most in the county, as well as 12 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles, returns for his senior year to shore up the middle of the field for the Panthers. Drake was the only Pelham player on offense or defense to be named a First Team All-County selection last season, and will do everything he can to keep this Pelham team in games.

The defensive backfield will look different than a year ago, as Malik Copeland and Peyton Chenault have graduated while Gipson has moved to receiver. Bush will see time at cornerback as well as running back, and he will be joined by Ledrae Tabb, while Rodney Pettway, Vidal Solito and Jalen Cook will round out the back of Pelham’s 4-2-5 defense. How the defensive backfield come together in the early going could go a long way toward Pelham’s competitiveness in the first month of the season.

Way-Too-Early prediction: Last year was tough, and it’s hard to imagine this one being a whole lot better. Seven of the teams on Pelham’s schedule this year made the playoffs last fall, and five won at least one playoff game. Pelham’s new region, 6A Region 3, is going to be cutthroat, and the Panthers will be hard pressed to find winnable games in region play or elsewhere.

There will be improvements, yes. For one, the Panthers will not be so overmatched physically in as many games this year, as they have now had a full year of Causey’s weightlifting regiment impressed upon them. That by itself will likely lead to more competitive games this year if nothing else, but Pelham is still at least a year away from making any real noise, as the rebuilding process will continue. Pelham will finish the year 3-7.