Ledford Preview: Youthful Panthers relying on key vets
Prior to the start of last season, Chris Adams made a prophetic statement that sparked the turnaround of a program that had fallen on some hard times.
“Last year, we lost four games by less than a touchdown,” Adams said a year ago. “If you find a way to win two of those games, you have a seven-win season.”
The Ledford Panthers finished 7-5 in 2013, placing second in the Mid-Piedmont 3-A Conference thanks to a group of 27 seniors – many of whom were four-year starters. The now-departed senior class began as freshmen with Adams, who is entering his fifth season with the program.
That loss of leadership will be the team's greatest obstacle in duplicating its success from last year.
“The thing about our team last year is that we were in seven games decided by a touchdown or less,” Adams said. “We won five of those games. The year before, we were in five or six of those games and won two of them. A play or two here or there made all the difference. Experience may have something to do with that.
“Again, when you graduate that many, you've got a lot of work to do.”
This year's squad will be a bit younger, but retains veterans at key positions. Dalton Harris, last season's Davidson County offensive player of the year, returns as the starting tailback. He is one of eight seniors who seek to step into leadership roles.
“We've just got to bring the right attitude to the table for the young guys, set the tone for them,” Harris said. “Last year, we learned how to finish. We've got to continue to do that, continue finishing. If we continue finishing, we're going to have a great year.”
Harris' optimism is partially rooted in his confidence that his quarterback will make enough plays through the air that he can attack defenses in the running game. Junior Koby Younger will begin his first full season as the team's starting quarterback. He spent the first half of last year leading the junior varsity squad, but was called upon to finish the season as the signal-caller for varsity after Bubba White was lost to a season-ending injury.
Younger will throw to several familiar faces from JV. Hunter Walker and Tyler McAllister, along with two-way player Tyler Scott, will be his primary targets.
On the defensive side of the ball, Garrett Hooker anchors a defensive front that should be the strength of the team. Hooker is a 6-foot-2 linebacker/end hybrid who will also line up on the offense as a tight end and fullback. His versatility will be key in creating mismatches all over the field. He is receiving interest from Appalachian State, Georgia and Clemson, among other ACC schools.
Perhaps the most significant veteran addition the Panthers made in the offseason was on its coaching staff. Former Ledford head coach – and most recently, offensive coordinator at Thomasville High School – Dickie Cline rejoins the Panthers as an offensive coach. His primary responsibilities will involve coaching an offensive line Adams said will be a work-in-progress early in the season.
“Coach Cline is back working with our [offense], coaching our offensive line,” Adams said. “It's a thrill for me. Our staff is great; we've been together a long time. Some of the guys on our staff played for him, so that's exciting for them. I'm excited about our kids, and I'm just looking forward to us getting better and better.”
The players are equally excited about Cline's presence.
“This year, we're a lot more upbeat and enthusiastic,” Hooker said. “It's a totally different atmosphere. Coach Cline has brought a whole new attitude to our team.”
The physicality Cline instilled in his players during his lengthy stint in Wallburg as head coach bodes well for this year's group. Although he does not have any players the size of Brad Hoover or Madison Hedgecock – two former NFL players who were Ledford standouts before turning pro – Cline will be instrumental in making sure the deceptively strong Harris is able to make headway in the running game.
Adams had nothing but praise for a player he says will shoulder a considerable amount of the load offensively for a conservative offense. Despite not possessing many of the tangible qualities of previous elite Panther running backs, his head coach believes Dalton does something as well as any back he's been around.
“He has vision as good as anybody we've coached here,” Adams said. “We've had some good running backs. He's just a good kid. I'm excited for him. He's worked hard in the weight room, increased his speed. I just hope we can open some holes for him this year.”
If the team is able to run the ball and the defense can “win some games early,” Adams is optimistic Ledford has turned a corner and can become a consistent winner in the Mid-Piedmont Conference.
“Looking back on last year, I'm happy with how far our program has come. I think we're in good shape,” Adams said. “Our defense should be able to keep us in games this season. We're not going to blow anybody out. Things are going to boil down to a play or two each game. We're kind of thin, so we've got to try to stay healthy. An injury here or there could make a big impact.”
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3578, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.