Panthers seek new road to the Dome

Tracey Long

Ridgeland advanced to the Class AAAA championship in 2012 with a prolific rushing offense that accounted for 39.0 points per game. Sandy Creek topped the Panthers 45-10 in the title game, but the incredible rushing offense paced them to a 13-2 season.


“What made last year’s team special is that every single player understood their role,” said head coach Mark Mariakis. “The only thing they worried about was winning football games.”


Understanding roles this upcoming season may take time, as there will be considerable changes in the Panthers’ starting lineup.


Out of the backfield, Darrell Bridges and Vonn Bell bulldozed and scampered their way to 61 touchdowns in 2012. Bridges, who is at Presbyterian College, rushed for nearly 2,400 yards and Bell accounted for over 1,100. Bell was a five-star defensive back who will be at Ohio State this season.


“We lost 5,500 yards of rushing from last year and only have 800 yards returning,” said Mariakis. “We’ve got some big shoes to fill production wise. I’m hoping these kids will look at last year’s work ethic and more importantly know their roles and get their job done above anything else and hopefully we will have some success.”


The returning 800 yards of rushing come from Noah Cooper, who will star in the Panthers’ running attack this upcoming season.


“I think Noah is capable of having a big year numbers wise,” said Mariakis “He’s a hard runner and one of his biggest assets is his balance and vision. He’s gonna be that guy everyone looks to because he is the only skill player we have returning this year.”


Noah is a more than capable feature back, but Ridgeland will be missing the versatility that Bell and Bridges combined to produce.


“Last year we had a great combination [of explosiveness and power]. We could just pound it with Bridges but then we could pick up home runs with Bell,” said Mariakis. “I don’t think we ever got caught from behind after we busted one all last year. I’m not sure we have that capability at this point to turn a two yard run into six points just because of that lack of really burning speed, but I think we can get there and increase the game speed as the season progresses.”


Speed may be something that Hunter Kaufhold can incorporate into this playbook from the quarterback position.


“Hunter brings a little more speed than we have had at the position and has really improved in throwing the football. This year we may have to open it [the playbook] up a little bit [with Hunter] just because we don’t have thoroughbreds all over the backfield like we did last year”


Mariakis believes his offense will morph itself into a “different looking animal” as the season goes on.


On defense a bunch of the core guys will return as six starters from 2012 will suit back up. The Panthers leading tackler from 2012, DeAngelo Smith, will start at linebacker after his 133 tackles season. Dillon Peterman will have to fill the void in the secondary left by Bell. Last season Peterman made a big impact with 71 tackles and five interceptions.


On the defensive line is Jermane Conyers. The 6-foot-3, 290 pound tackle was clocked at a 4.71 in the 40 and can wreck havoc on opposing offenses. Appalachian State, Eastern Kentucky, Georgia Southern, Indiana and Marshall have offered Conyers. Former University of Georgia assistant Jon Fabris has been recruiting him from Indiana, and Conyers visited the campus on June 15 for a camp. Ridgeland will start the powerful senior on both sides of the ball this season.


The goal for the Panthers this season will be to focus on getting better each week. Mariakis has made it clear that he expects his team to adapt, and with a new backfield and quarterback managing the offense, we can expect to see changes in the Panthers’ methods. They open the season at home against Class AA powerhouse Calhoun, who handed them a 42-35 loss in week one last season. Calhoun went 14-1 in 2012, losing in the Class AA title game to Jefferson last year. This week one matchup will be a great measuring stick for two teams that are trying to return to the podium in 2013.

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