Americus-Sumter star Bryce Benton’s monster junior season landed him on the First-Team All-Region squad in 1-AAA — and on the map for D-I recruiters everywhere. He returns as a senior after throwing for 2,100 yards and completing a staggering 71 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Americus-Sumter star Bryce Benton’s monster junior season landed him on the First-Team All-Region squad in 1-AAA — and on the map for D-I recruiters everywhere. He returns as a senior after throwing for 2,100 yards and completing a staggering 71 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Counting down to kickoff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s in-depth look at SOUTHLAND and AMERICUS-SUMTER marks the 13th and 14th of 26 prep football season previews that will appear in the sports section during the next two weeks as we count down to Kickoff 2012. On Thursday, we’ll take a closer look at BAINBRIDGE, CRISP COUNTY and CRISP ACADEMY. Enjoy!

BY SCOTT PHILLIPS

AMERICUS TIMES-RECORDER

AMERICUS — In a region as tough as 1-AAA, some teams would be thrilled to just end the season in the Top 4 and head to the playoffs.

Not Americus-Sumter.

After finishing their 2011 campaign with a 6-5 record and finishing as region runner-up for the second year in a row, the Panthers are tired of being the bridesmaid. Now they want the crown.

“I feel like this is the year,” said all-purpose star Johnathan Thomas.

So does Bryce Benton, who will be counted on to lead the Panthers under center once again.

And with Division I coaches watching his every throw closely, Benton — a senior transfer from Newnan who is entering his second and final year with the Panthers — knows the pressure is on.

“I think we’re going to be a real balanced team,” Benton said. “We have good running backs coming back, and (I’ve got) great consistency with the receivers.”

With the new GHSA region alignments, Americus-Sumter will join old region 1-AAA foes Cairo, Crisp County, Monroe, Worth County, Westover and Dougherty in the new Region 1-AAAA, along with newcomer Albany High.

The Panthers will return a strong team in 2012, especially on the offensive side of the ball at the skill positions — led by Benton. Benton passed for more than 2,100 yards and was incredibly accurate, completing 71 percent of his throws.

And colleges have taken notice.

“Bryce is getting a lot of looks from Georgia to Alabama, and several other SEC and BCS schools have commented on his unique combination of arm strength and accuracy,” Americus-Sumter coach Michael Pollock said.

Following his junior season, Benton was named to the First-Team All-Region Team at the quarterback position.

But Benton’s far from the only offensive weapon the Panthers have.

The Panthers also return the versatile Thomas to the offensive arsenal. Thomas can play nearly every position for the Panthers — Wildcat quarterback, middle linebacker, running back and kick returner. Thomas was a 2011 Second-Team All-Region selection, and the Panthers’ goal is to get him the ball as often as possible this season.

“Our goal is to maximize the reps that J.T. receives on the field on offense, defense and special teams,” Pollock said of Thomas, who had more than 600 receiving and 300 rushing yards a year ago.

Thomas, only a junior, has also been getting looks from several colleges, including the University of Georgia which coach Pollock says, “loves his versatility.”

The Panthers will be led at the running back position by a pair of extremely talented sophomores in Wesley Fields and Bryan Stone. Fields and Stone split carries last season, and Fields was recently offered a scholarship by Division I University of South Alabama.

The Panthers’ leading receiver from 2011, Xavier Willis, did not return, but there’s still plenty of talent to go around in Pollock’s run-and-gun system.

After losing in the first round of the playoffs at home, Benton said this team is primed to prove itself.

“I felt like it was disappointing (losing early in the playoffs), but we’ll come back pretty confident this year,” said Benton, who threw for 13 touchdowns in his junior campaign.

Although they have some good young depth on the offensive line, the Panthers will have to replace three linemen lost to graduation.

They will be looking at William Morgan, the 6-foot-3, 320-pounder, to anchor their line and be a model for the younger players.

“Because of his size, he is drawing a lot of interest from colleges, and we would need him to help us become a championship team,” Pollock said.

The Panthers will also look to tight end Christian Lassiter, offensive lineman Tay Oliver and receiver Dylan Morgan to help them on offense this season.

The defensive side of the ball will be the biggest issue for the Panthers after losing several key players. One of the biggest hurdles for Pollock and the Panthers will be replacing defensive tackle Shykeith Johnson. Johnson signed a scholarship to play for Reinhardt College, and he left a very big hole in the Panthers’ defensive line.

Americus, however, will have two defensive ends who are used to the position and have had great success there. Willie Williams was a Second-Team All-Region selection in 2011, and he recently committed to the University of South Alabama.

Q’nealus Bell, who was also the goalkeeper on the 2012 region champion Panther soccer team, is a pass rushing defensive end who will be expected to jump into a full-time role this season.

The Panthers also lost two quality players at the outside linebacker position: Bell’s brother, Dontravious, and Joseph Daniel — both of whom were defensive leaders. That means the Panthers will be looking for some young players to step up at the outside linebacker position this season.

“Defensively, we have to get our linebacker corps replaced because that is a big question mark to be answered,” said Pollock, who is entering his third season with the Panthers. “The biggest thing right now is that we are still a young team. On offense, we only have one or two players in the starting lineup that are seniors. The others are juniors or younger, but we will be looking at them to play as if they are seniors.”

The Panthers will open next week against Kendrick, followed by Dooly County, and Macon County in non-region home games during the next three weeks. The Region 1-AAAA portion of their schedule will begin on Sept. 21 against Albany and continue until the end of the season, highlighted by their match-up with defending region champion Cairo at home on Oct. 26.

And you better believe the Panthers’ players are already talking about how huge both those games are.

“We’ve (already) got (Cairo) and Monroe circled on the calendar,” Thomas said.


Albany Herald sports writer Matt Stewart contributed to this report


Americus-Sumter’s 2012 season outlook

MASCOT: Panthers.

HEAD COACH: Michael Pollock (3rd season in Americus, fifth overall as head coach — Cook 2001-02; 32-16 career record).

2011 RECORD: 6-5.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Chris Wade (offensive coordinator); Chris Lamb (defensive coordinator); Jason Reese (OL); Brandon Priest (OL); Michael Coley (WRs); Dexter Dawson (WRs); Steve Smith (RBs); Carl Willis (TEs); Andre Slappey (DL); Darren Samas (DL); Mark Prater (LBs); Josh Hicks (LBs); Kendrick Thomas (LBs); Brandon Courson (DBs).

RETURNING STARTERS: Leroy Henderson (Sr., DL); Dontavious Oliver (Sr., OL); Christian Laster (Sr., TE); William Morgan (Sr., OL/DL); Bryce Benton (Sr., QB); Willie Williams (Sr., TE/DL); Jonathan Thomas (Jr., WR/QB/DB); Wesley Fields (So., RB/DB); Brian Stone (So., RB/LB); Dylan Morgan (Jr., WR/DB); Q’Nealus Bell (Jr., RB/LB); Kadrious Bryant (Sr., WR/DB).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Oscar Martinez (Sr., OL); D.J. Harris (So., WR/DB); David Tyson III (So., TE/LB); Chris Jones (Sr., WR/DB).

FORMER PLAYERS IN COLLEGE OR HIGHER: Tay Sims (University of Washington); Uneik Crumbley (University of Alabama at Birmingham); Kyle Champion (Samford); Jonathan Battle (Georgia Southern); Pat Fields (Shorter); Claude Deriso (Shorter); Shykeith Johnson (Reinhart).

2012 Americus-Sumter Panthers’ schedule

Aug. 31 vs. Kendrick, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 7 vs. Dooly County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Macon County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Albany, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Worth County, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 12 vs. Monroe, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 18 at Westover, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 vs. Cairo, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 1 at Dougherty, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9 vs. Crisp County, 7:30 p.m.

----- BOLD denotes GHSA Region 1-AAAA game