Southland senior starting QB Jake Hood rushed for 471 yards and 4 TDs a year ago. (Photo by Chris Whitaker/Americus Times-Recorder)
AMERICUS -- Americus-Sumter had a milestone season in 2010.
The Panthers finished 7-5, second in Region 1-AAA and won their first playoff game since the merger between Americus and Sumter County in 2004.
Expectations are even higher this year for second-year coach Michael Pollock and the Panthers.
"Last season was definitely something we can build on for the future," Pollock said. "We're starting to get confidence. We can get our program back to where it belongs and to where we want it as a coaching staff, our group of players and for the program and community."
The Panthers started slow at 1-3 before winning five in a row. Turnovers and bad snaps plagued them in their losses, but Pollock is confident those issues won't have as big of an impact this season.
After all, inexperience and moving players into new positions were the biggest factors for the turnover bug.
"We really didn't do a good job of protecting the ball," Pollock said. "We had some growing pains, but I think we did a good job circling the wagons in region play and trusting each other, and we played a lot better."
The Panthers return six starters on an offense that averaged 235 yards a game -- 136 of those coming on the ground.
They used two quarterbacks during the year, including Malik Thomas, who was hindered by injury for much of the season. The Panthers, however, shouldn't have that problem this season; they will have four signal callers ready to take snaps.
That includes Thomas, his younger brother Jonathan Thomas and incoming junior transfer Bryce Benton from Newnan. Sophomore Johntavion Lawson is also on that list.
"Bryce is a pretty good football player," Pollock said of Benton, who will get the starting nod tonight when the Panthers open against Liberty County on the road. "He's very intelligent and as much of a student of the game as all our quarterbacks. He's a left-handed quarterback, so that's something new. We've had to adjust some things to fit him, and he's come in here and been a real positive part of our team. The kids have welcomed him in, and he's done a good job coming in and fitting in with them and developing relationships needed for us to be successful."
Both the Thomas' have welcomed Benton with open arms, and Malik said they are like a band of brothers.
"We took him in like a brother, showed him to all the players, and we grew from there," Malik said. "He's a good leader and that's the most important thing. As the season goes on, he's going to mature and once he matures, he's going to be pretty good."
After struggling last year in the air, Pollock believes the team has more playmakers capable of giving the Panthers an extra boost. Running back Jarod Lewis is the only returner with double-digit catches (11) and only two other players return who had receptions last year: Xavier Willis, Tyran Goober. Willis had a team-high 202 yards on six receptions.
Pollock said someone has to step up and fill the shoes of Kedrick Jones, who was the Panthers' playmaker last season.
"We've got to find more than one home run hitter," he said. "We need a home run hitter at wideout to stretch the field vertically. We need to get the deep ball to be a viable option so teams can't pack the box on us. We need them to worry about someone out there on the perimeter getting behind them.
"I expect us to be a lot more explosive in the passing game. We expect to throw the ball a lot more this year."
The Thomas brothers will be on the field at receiver and tight end, and Pollock said Willis has the ability to be a big-play receiver.
"I think he can be as good of a receiver that Americus-Sumter has had since the days of John Harris and Jermaine Allen," he said. "He can be as good as he wants to be. He has to keep working hard and keep improving."
Lewis is the only returner in the backfield that saw a lot of carries. He rushed for 251 yards on 51 attempts, but had 121 yards in the opener. Freshmen Wesley Fields and Brian Stone will bring some depth at running back, and Pollock said they could be Division I prospects when they are seniors.
The Panthers return three senior starters on the offensive line -- Josh House, William Morgan and Kentrell Mercer -- but are searching for replacements at the other two spots. Oscar Martinez, Dontavious Oliver, Darren Samas and Johnathan Leverette are possibilities.
Americus-Sumter saved its best offensive performance of the season for the playoff game against Washington County during which it totaled 400 yards. Pollock hopes for those numbers every game this year.
The defense also returns six starters, including two linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. Last year, the Panthers allowed around 216 yards a game and had 23 takeaways. They held seven opponents to less than 225 yards and five to less than 100 yards rushing.
They do have to replace Pat Fields, Jonathan Battle, Claude Deriso and Thomas Haugabook on defense, which won't be an easy task. Those four sparked the defense.
"I'll be interested to see how we respond this year to what's going on in terms of stopping people," Pollock said. "When we entered games last year, the other team really struggled to run the football, and that makes you feel good. We hope to have that same mentality this year."
Senior Shykeith Johnson (55 tackles, 9 TFL, 5 sacks) and junior Willie Williams (38 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks) will anchor the line. Seniors Dontavious Bell (74 tackles, 19 TFL, 5 sacks) and Joseph Daniels (57 tackles, 18 TFL) head the linebackers, and seniors Tyran Goober (27 tackles, 7 INT, 13 PBU) and Martinez Reese lead the secondary.
Sophomore Q'Nealus Bell and senior Kendrick Mercer will see a lot of time on the line, and freshman Brian Stone could be a replacement in the LB corps.
The secondary is the biggest question on defense, which allowed too many third down conversions through the air last year.
"I think we can be good in the secondary again," he said. "I think some of them may be a little better athletes than the kids we played with last year, but the experience level will not be there. We're going to be multiple in the secondary with zone and man combinations, and that will help more."
Pollock wants to do a better job on special teams to make opponents begin drives inside their own 20.
He is on a mission to find a kicker after his starter chose not to play, and the Panthers held an open tryout this week. If extra points aren't made consistently -- the team was 1 of 3 in its preseason scrimmage -- Pollock said he will not hesitate to go for two after every score.
Pollock likes this year's schedule a lot more considering there is only one non-Friday game. All the Albany schools in 1-AAA come to Americus, but the Panthers do travel to Crisp County, Worth County and Cairo.
They host Cook and Troup, and they travel to Houston County for a Thursday night game.
The Panthers were outscored, 132-21, in their three toughest games last year (Cook, Cairo, Sandy Creek), and Pollock said that has to change.
"We played three elite teams in the state, and we didn't play very well," he said. "We're really focusing on getting ourselves in better position to compete at that level because that's where we expect to be.
"Everybody's catching up to Cairo, and there will be a whole bunch of us fighting for the second, third and fourth spots. We expect to win more than seven games and go past the second round of the playoffs."
Americus-Sumter's 2011 season outlook
HEAD COACH: Michael Pollock (2nd season at Americus-Sumter, third overall as head coach; 26-11 career coaching record).
2010 RECORD: 7-5.
ASSISTANT COACHES: Chris Wade (offensive coordinator); Chris Lamb (defensive coordinator); ASSISTANTS: Daniel Allen, Michael Coley, Brandon Courson; Tim Prater, Jason Reese, Andre Slappey, Steve Smith, Kedrick Thomas; Mark Walton; Carl Willis.
RETURNING STARTERS: Shykeith Johnson (Sr., DT); Xavier Willis (Jr., WR/DB); Kentrell Mercer (Sr., OL); Kendrick Mercer (Sr. DL/LB); Tyran Goober (Sr., DB/WR); Malik Thomas (Sr., WR/DB); J.T. Thomas (So., QB/RB/DB); Jarod Lewis (Sr., RB).
2011 AMERICUS-SUMTER schedule
Today at Liberty County, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 vs. Cook, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 9 vs. Troup, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 15 at Houston County, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Worth County, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 30 vs. Monroe, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 at Crisp County, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 14 vs. Dougherty, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 28 vs. Westover, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Cairo, 7:30 p.m.