Prediction: Even in rebuilding year, Evangel set to contend for national title

Published 10:07 am Thursday, August 10, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

ALABASTER – How does a five-time national champion rebuild?

That’s the question that Evangel coach Tim Smith will have to answer this season after losing a talented group of seniors including Eli Whitfield and Judah Thompson who led the Lightning to an undefeated season last year.

Admittedly, “rebuilding year” was Smith’s choice of phrase, but when Evangel has enough talent this year to contend on both a state and national level, calling this Lightning squad a rebuilding team almost feels disrespectful.

The Lightning have loads of returning talent, including Hunter Atkins, Caeleb Austin, Carson Donovan and Zion Thompson, as well as potential breakouts across the locker room.

With that said, Evangel does have multiple questions to answer around the field, most importantly at quarterback. Fortunately for Evangel, two of their potential breakouts are at that position in last year’s backup Will Welch and transfer Kemp Swords. Welch has experience learning behind Whitfield, but Swords is such a tremendous athlete that he is challenging for the starting spot as well as at cornerback.

Regardless of who plays, Smith will have plenty of options in the playbook since both Welch and Swords can run very well, which opens up run-pass-option plays that weren’t possible with Whitfield’s skillset.

Speaking of the run, Atkins rushed for over a thousand yards last year and will now pair with fullback Colton Dorough to make a very versatile running back duo, as Atkins can be used around the field and Dorough excels between the tackles.

Whoever the new quarterback is will have an embarrassment of riches at receiver, even with the loss of Judah Thompson. Austin was phenomenal in his limited playing time in 2022 thanks to dominant performances in the national championship game against Freedom and in the All-American Game despite breaking his leg in the season opener. He will be 100% healthy and ready to make an impact this year.

Joining him is Zion Thompson, who has much of the same traits as his brother Judah including great receiving ability. Clay Stanton and Grady Watkins will both bring the size to the receiving corps at six-foot-four and six-foot-three, respectively.

The offensive line will be led by veterans, including two players who could not be any more different in size but will both be impact players this season: the six-foot-four, 280-pound five-year starter Carson Donovan and 175-pound Ethan Stallings. Baylor Parker will be another strong veteran as well.

On the opposite side of the line, Evangel will be very quick with Stanton, Cole Romero and Grady Watkins all impressing during summer workouts and camp season with their sub-five 40-yard dash speed.

Behind them, the defense is filled with playmakers, including main linebacker Hayden Black, the versatile and athletic Austin, one of the best cornerbacks in eight-man football in Zion Thompson and rising linebacker star Zane Barlow.

Top to bottom, this Evangel team is stacked with talent. Even though some questions need to be answered and some of said talent is raw, the Lightning will be a dynamic and athletic group once again.

Prediction: 9-1. Evangel has the potential to be one of the top teams in the nation again this year. To be the best, however, you have to beat the best, and Smith’s squad will face some of the top teams in the country before they even reach Panama City Beach for the national playoffs, thanks to matchups with Cary Christian, Freedom and Franklin Christian. Even if they have struggles along the way, those matchups should only make Evangel better as they have in the past. Smith knows how to get the most out of his players, and this isn’t the first time he’s had to replace stars, even if they haven’t been of the caliber that last year’s seniors are. Regardless of what happens along the way, Evangel’s talent and experience in big situations should land them right where they always are: competing for state and national championships at year’s end. And that’s in a “rebuilding year.”