Way-Too-Early football predictions; Part 9

Rising senior Keyvontae Mayfield will take an increased role in the offense this season for Shelby County as the Wildcats look to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. (File)

Rising senior Keyvontae Mayfield will take on an increased role in the offense this season for Shelby County as the Wildcats look to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. (File)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

COLUMBIANA – Only a few more teams to look at before the football season kicks off with abandon in less than two weeks. With only three more AHSAA teams to get to, we now shine our light into the center of the county, Shelby County High School.

Shelby County hasn’t won more than four games since 2009, and has been mired in mediocrity for quite a while. While last year’s record, 4-6, might seem like just the latest chapter in that tired story, that is not completely accurate. The Wildcats, while they did finish 4-6 and missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season, consistently competed for the first time in years. For the first time since that 2009 season, when Shelby County went 9-2, the Wildcats scored more points on average than they gave up, and averaged 34 points per game. Also, two of Shelby County’s losses came by a single point, either of which could have turned the tide on that season.

Now, entering into Heath Childers’ third year as Shelby County’s head coach, optimism is high that the Wildcats will be able to finally turn the corner and rack enough wins to get to the postseason. Let’s take a look at what’s under Shelby County’s hood this year.

Off the bat, the loss of a running back like Jamarius Mayfield is obviously going to hurt, especially in an offense as committed to running the ball as the Wildcats are. The reigning Player of the Year in the county scored 22 touchdowns on the ground and rushed for 1,714 yards on just 155 carries last season, giving him an average of 11 yards per rush. Childers has said he felt like Mayfield was the best back in 5A last season, and replacing a player like him simply isn’t possible. Instead, Shelby County will use a stable full of backs to offset Mayfield’s loss.

Lamont Bush, Chance McNeal and Jeremiah Crenshaw will combine to replace Mayfield at the halfback spot, while Aremee Calloway and Keyvontae Mayfield, Jamarius’ cousin, along with Trent Sullivan will get touches at the fullback position. Childers and Shelby County make no apologies for their offensive style. This team is going to line up in the Wing-T at every opportunity and run the ball down opposing defenses’ throats, peppering in a passing game whenever necessary. If this core of backs can stay healthy this season, a luxury that was not the case a year ago, the Wildcats will be in good shape moving forward.

At the quarterback spot steps junior Chadwyn Russ. Russ will step into his first full year as the starter under center after starting the final three games of last season. Russ takes over the job from senior Mason Blythe, who has moved to linebacker for his senior year. Russ doesn’t have quite the arm strength that Blythe has and isn’t as big, but is quicker and is more accurate and has nice command of his deep ball. While this team will always be a run-first outfit as long as Childers is in charge, the Wildcats have made strides to implement more of a passing game into their offense.

As Shelby County continues its saga to try to incorporate more passing, there are now two options at receiver who might help make that dream more of a reality with Addison Couch and Mitch Nash. Both are two of the best deep ball receivers Shelby County has had in years, and with Russ’s ability to pinpoint his long balls, the Wildcats have a chance to develop their passing game as more of a threat than it has been in years past.

Along the offensive and defensive line the Wildcats lose a ton of pieces from last year, unfortunately, as all four defensive lineman have graduated and four of the five offensive lineman are gone. The one remaining piece from last years’ line that played such a pivotal role in the offensive renaissance is Dalton Purcell at right guard. Childers, who works with the offensive line specifically, believes the senior Purcell is one of the toughest and quickest lineman he has coached, and has complete faith in him to run the unit. While the loss of nine-tenths of last years’ linemen looks bad, Childers is still confident that the guys who will step into those roles are ready to go.

Blythe, who was the quarterback for the first seven games last year before he got hurt, has moved over to linebacker and will be joined by Trent Sullivan at inside linebacker in Shelby County’s 4-4 base defense. The Wildcats scored 33.4 points per game last season and went 4-6, meaning they have to improve on the defensive side of the ball this year. McNeal and Chase Franklin will be the two outside linebackers, and Childers will use Keyvontae Mayfield at the outside linebacker position whenever he needs to, although he will try to save his senior’s legs for offense as much as he can.

Nash, Crenshaw and Couch will all see ample time on both sides of the ball and will be joined in the defensive secondary by Nevada Wages. The Wildcats suffered the loss of Patrick Krieder halfway through the summer, who has moved out of state, but they have adjusted and will be ready to go in a few weeks’ time.

Way-Too-Early prediction: While Shelby County did not change classifications, its area heading into the 2016 season looks completely different. Instead of being the northernmost team in a southern-based region, the Wildcats are now the southernmost team in a northern-based region with Briarwood, Fairfield, Moody, Pleasant Grove, St. Clair County, Wenonah and Woodlawn. Not one team in the newly-aligned Region 5 is ranked in the preseason 5A poll, and the only team to receive any points at all was Briarwood, who received just nine. What that means is this region will be a crapshoot this season, and it’s anybody’s guess who will walk away with the region crown.

Call it wishful thinking, call it sentimentality for a program that operates the right way year after year, call it whatever you’d like, but Shelby County is an easy bunch to root for. This team will be the first Wildcat bunch in the last seven years to see a playoff game. The Wildcats will go 5-5 in the regular season and sneak into the 5A playoffs.