JEFFERSON — The 2010 season brings a change to the area that gave the Jackson County Panthers the most trouble last year — region play.
The Panthers turned some heads early in 2009, starting 3-0 to open the season before going 1-6 in region play to end their year 4-6.
They’ll have the opportunity to start fresh this year, moving down from Region 8-AAA to Region 8-AA. The Panthers now find themselves in the new 8B-AA along with former 8-AAA opponents Hart County and Elbert County. They join existing Class AA members and county rivals East Jackson and Jefferson.
Fourth-year Panthers coach Billy Kirk believes this year might be one to remember.
“Realistically, will we win the region? Well, most likely not, but will we fight and be in good contention for a playoff spot? I think so,” Kirk said.
If the Panthers continue to improve, as they have each year of Kirk’s tenure, Jackson County might finally get the winning season that has eluded the team for almost two decades.
But despite being in a lower class, Kirk knows that the team will have to play its best to compete during the 2010 season.
“If you think there is going to be any drop-off in competition then you have lost your mind,” Kirk said. “There are some tough teams (in 8-AA) and the players and coaches here know that it’s not going to get any easier for us.”
The Panthers return five starters on offense this year, but lost standouts Charles Smothers at tailback and Rob Williams at receiver. 2010 will bring position changes for some returning players, the most notable of which will be last year’s starting quarterback, Alex Crawford, moving to the athlete category, where he will play in a variety of offensive packages.
The quarterback position is up for grabs between junior Jalen Banks and sophomore Kyle Daniel.
Banks stepped in for an injured Crawford in the final game of the season against Stephens County. In that game, Banks led the Panthers to a 26-23 victory over the Indians on the road.
It marked the first time Jackson County had defeated Stephens County in team history.
Daniel comes into the 2010 season playing mostly junior varsity last season.
Sophomore Trey Pettijohn will also carry the athlete label this year and will likely be used in several offensive packages as a receiver/tight end.
The Panthers’ offense should be strongest up front, with returning guard Ben Brown and center Troy McIntyre.
They will be the key to providing protection for the Panthers’ young quarterbacks as well as be responsible for making holes for running backs Austin McDonald and Dustin Scott.
The Panthers held their first three opponents of 2009 to a combined 10 points. That was followed by six straight region losses in which they were outscored 194-48.
The key players on the Panthers defense this year are seniors Kelly Moates (LB) and Alex Nanigan (DL). The 5-foot-11, 245-pound Nanigan will have to use his big frame to break through the offensive line and pressure opposing quarterbacks. Moates will also be instrumental as a field general on defense, defending the run and the pass.
In addition to playing in multiple offensive packages, Crawford will start at free safety. He will help solidify the secondary along with returning starting cornerback Nick Oney.
Pettijohn may also see a lot of playing time on the defensive side of the ball, most likely as linebacker, which he played last season.
Senior Garrett Daglis returns as kicker, while junior defensive back Thomas Carroll will share kicking and punting responsibilities. Oney is also listed on the team’s roster as a kicker.
Scott will most likely be the return man for the Panthers this season.
The Panthers will prepare for what looks to be a brutal region schedule by playing two Class AAA teams and Fannin County — which appears to be one of the top teams in the North subregion of 8-AA — to start the season. They will have to face county rivals East Jackson and Jefferson on the road, but will get North Oconee and Hart County both at Panther Stadium late in the season.
If the defense can remain consistent and the young offense can limit turnovers and produce when given the opportunities, the Panthers could find themselves in the thick of things in a stacked 8-AA South.