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Panthers finalize roster for March 17 season opener

ALBANY — One more year. One more championship run.

That’s what brought John Harris back to the Albany Panthers, and that’s what helped him convince his teammates to return.

Harris is one of several veteran players who made the decision to suit back up for the 2011 SIFL champion Panthers, who made their final cut for the 2012 season after Thursday’s practice.

The Panthers, who will now play this season in the newly-formed Professional Indoor Football League, return nearly their entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball, including starting quarterback and championship game MVP Cecil Lester.

Lester wasn’t at practice Thursday evening, but the seventh-year veteran was one of several offensive stars who was on the brink of hanging up his helmet after the 2011 season.

“We told Cecil that it wouldn’t work if he didn’t come back,” said Harris, who is entering his fifth season of indoor football. “He is the glue. He is the one making it happen for us. We believe in him, and he believes in us. If we would have brought somebody else in here, then we would have had to start all over.”

Harris and fellow receiver Antwon Cutts — both Americus-Sumter High School grads — said he and his veteran teammates talked all summer about their future.

“We hung out together and were like, ‘Do you all want to do it again?’ Some of us had opportunities to play other places, but we just wanted to come back and be around these same guys,” Harris said. “Everybody knows what to expect out of everybody. It’s like home for us. We feel at home playing for Albany.”

So instead of having to start all over, the Panthers are picking up right where they left off.

Lester will be throwing balls to returning wide receivers Antwone Savage, Cutts and Harris; running back Derrick Wimbush will return to the backfield; and linemen Terrance Smith, Aaron Wheeler and Demetrice Jackson are back to protect Lester.

Lester threw 64 touchdowns last season and only 15 interceptions to lead an Albany offense that averaged 52.9 points per game. Cutts, Harris and Savage were Lester’s favorite targets, catching 15, 16 and 20 touchdowns, respectively.

“We are trying to be a whole lot better,” Harris said. “This is going to be our third year together as a receiving corps, and quarterback. We feel like with all the experience we have this year, we can score every possession.”

Savage, who also has seven years of indoor football experience, said the offense hasn’t missed a beat.

“Practices are pretty smooth,” Savage said. “After you sit out for six months it’s kind of rusty, but every day we are improving. That’s our main goal, to get better and get to that same level to where we were last year.”

While all eight offensive starters are back from last season, there was a bit of turnover on the defensive side of the ball.

The Panthers lost key defensive ends Tito Hannah and Terrance Hawk, starting defensive back Demetrie McCray and starting defensive lineman Munir Muwwakkil. The empty holes on the defense will be filled by linebacker Ryan Babbs, defensive back Damian Daniels and defensive end Anton Ceasar.

Daniels and Babbs are former Columbus Lions defensive stars and were members of the 2011 Lions squad that the Panthers knocked off in the SIFL semifinal game, and Ceaser is a veteran who played under Davis on af2 teams Mahoning Valley Thunder and Tulsa Talons.

“The defense is new,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “Each year I have been here, the defense has carried us. Once they understand one another and understand coverages and checks, I think they will be fine. During Tuesday’s practice they looked really good when they were all out there together.”

Other returning defenders are leading tackler Corey Rue (DB), Levance Richmond (DB) and Larry Edwards (LB).

With all of the returners on offense and all of the talent on defense, Davis knows the pressure is thick for his returning champions.

“They expect to do good when you return all of these guys,” Davis said. “The expectations go up even higher. We know what we have to do. We just have to be patient and play the game the right way.”

Davis cut the team’s roster from 34 to 24 on Thursday and will keep 20 on the active roster and four on the practice squad.

Former Alabama State quarterback Chris Mitchell will back up Lester, while the speedy, 5-foot-6 Elliott Finkley will be the team’s fourth wide receiver — a position held previously by Albany State star Clenton Rafe, who retired after last season. Also new to the team will be Albany State grad Deandre Williams.

The Panthers, who have lost only two home games the last two seasons, will open the season March 17 at the Albany Civic Center against the Richmond Raiders.