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Fear the Player of the Year

Think Monroe’s Charles Stafford, the reigning Herald Player of the Year, can just beat you with his arm? Think again. The senior signal caller, who is drawing a lot of major Division I interest, had a sneaky 312 yards and seven TDs last year on the ground to go along with the 3,025 yards and 23 touchdowns through the air. He’s the unquestioned leader of this year’s Monroe team, which ended last season with a second-round state playoff loss they hope to atone for Friday in Game 1 of 2013 against Class AA state powerhouse Brooks County. (Photos by Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)

Think Monroe’s Charles Stafford, the reigning Herald Player of the Year, can just beat you with his arm? Think again. The senior signal caller, who is drawing a lot of major Division I interest, had a sneaky 312 yards and seven TDs last year on the ground to go along with the 3,025 yards and 23 touchdowns through the air. He’s the unquestioned leader of this year’s Monroe team, which ended last season with a second-round state playoff loss they hope to atone for Friday in Game 1 of 2013 against Class AA state powerhouse Brooks County. (Photos by Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)

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Emmanuel Davis

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Antonio Leroy Jr.

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Charles Stafford

ALBANY — In the seconds that followed a slightly underthrown pass that was intercepted by the Monroe defense at practice Monday, starting quarterback Charles Stafford didn’t yell or scream or even slap his hands together in frustration.

But he did get a lecture — from himself.

“That’s Charles,” Monroe coach Charles Truitt began, “he never gets too high, never gets too low. He might get upset, but you’d never know it. Things just roll off his back. He works them out in his head. He’s just calm and cool.”

Speaking of cool, Stafford took a water break after his pick and found an ailing teammate hunched over next to the fountain. The senior signal caller and reigning Albany Herald Player of the Year seemingly forgot his troubles quickly, picked up one of the hoses and gave his friend a quick splash.

The teammate awoke from his daze and glanced up angrily. Then he saw who it was — and realized there was no harm intended. It was just Charles.

And a smile crept in. It always does when the leader pays attention to you.

“I’m here to pick guys up, help them be the best they can be,” said Stafford, who may be doing that early and often this season after Monroe lost 12 starters between offense and defense. “Whatever I can help us do to succeed, I’m gonna do.”

He did all that and more as a junior, posting Playstation-esque numbers in terms of accuracy and yardage, both on the ground and in the air. And scouts of Stafford, whose team opens the 2013 season Friday against Class AA powerhouse Brooks County at Hugh Mills Stadium, are apparently taking notice. Stafford says he’s currently being recruited by North Carolina, North Carolina State, Iowa State, Maryland and Missouri — but Truitt says his star is in no hurry to decide.

“Those are all great schools. But I told him just to sit back, relax and don’t jump at any one offer right now. Just enjoy your senior season and do what you do,” Truitt said. “And he is. Because if he has the kind of season that we both expect him to have, he should have a lot more choices (in just a few months).”

Stafford, who says he wants to eclipse 4,000 passing yards this season, completed 195 of 316 passes (.617 percent) for 3,025 yards and 23 touchdowns last year, and he also rushed for 312 yards on 68 carries and seven more TDs. He was the Offensive Player of the Year for Region 1-AAAA for the second consecutive year and led Monroe to the second round of the GHSA Class AAAA playoffs. But it was there that the Tornadoes lost to defending state champion Burke County.

And that won’t cut it this year.

“Region championship? That’s at the bottom of (our list of goals). Same with just making the playoffs,” Stafford said with more conviction that one might expect from a 6-foot-4, 220-pound soft-spoken, gentle giant. “We want to get past the second round. We didn’t like how last year ended. No, sir.”

Just after Stafford declared where he’d be taking Tornado Nation this season, up walked one of the young men who might just help him get there.

“That’s my guy right there. Our playmaker,” Stafford said as he pointed to senior WR Emmanuel Davis, one of the Tornadoes’ top returners at the position. “He’ll tell you.”

And he did.

Davis, senior linebacker Tim McCray and anyone you talked to at Monroe all said the same thing.

“This is a good team,” Davis said as he waved his hand across the field, encompassing everybody. “I believe we can do some things.”

But to achieve Monroe’s first Region 1-AAAA championship since 2006, it will begin and end with how well a young, inexperienced line — that features no senior starters — can protect Stafford.

“We had all seniors up front last year,” said Truitt, the 10th-year coach who arguably had his most experienced team possible surrounding Stafford last season when the Tornadoes went 8-4 — their best record since 2007. “The offensive line is a big question mark, but they’re lucky to have a leader like Charles who knew what he had returning this year and made it his goal to work with them as much as he could (during the offseason). And they’ve improved tremendously.”

Junior Brentavious Glanton brings the most experience to the Monroe line, while Truitt specifically mentioned sophomore Raymond Thomas and senior Malcolm Commings as making huge strides from last year in their pass protecting and blocking abilities.

Which is a good thing, because Stafford needs time to find WRs like Davis and junior Cornelius Jenkins, and leading returning rusher Daryl Brown (800 yards in 2012) and key newcomer Chris Young needs holes to run through. Unfortunately for the Monroe offense, last year’s leading receiver Dontavious Campbell is out until midseason after tearing his ACL during the Tornadoes’ basketball season that ended earlier this year.

“It’s a big loss, yes, but we’ve got guys who will step up in (Dontavious’ absence),” Truitt said.

Even with all-world Stafford under center, the defense may even be in better shape. Most of the players the Tornadoes lost were on offense as McCray — the Tornadoes’ leading tackler last season with 78 solos and 11 sacks — anchors the bunch that has some exciting pieces to the puzzle. And they were wreaking havoc on Stafford and the offense at times in practice this week.

“We like to challenge him, and he don’t always win,” McCray said. “Going against the best just makes us better.”

McCray is joined by returning defensive end Deonte Young (Jr.), linebackers Willie Felton and Devontay Stephens (both seniors) and free safeties Tevin Warren (Sr.) and Jenkins (Jr.). But the player who could emerge as the biggest star on defense for the Tornadoes is none other than the son of a local Albany legend.

“Antonio Leroy Jr. …. whew boy,” Truitt said, shaking his head as he talked about the 6-3, 220-pound sophomore linebacker, whose father, Antonio Leroy Sr., was inducted into the Albany Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 for his record-breaking career as a running back at Monroe and Albany State. “He has the chance to be one of the best linebackers to ever play here. And there’s been some great ones.”

Antonio Sr. finished his college career as Division II’s fourth-leading rusher all-time with 5,152 yards. He was at Monroe’s practice Monday — as he often is these days — and stood nearby, looking quite ripped, like he could still strap on the uniform and run someone over.

“You’ve gotta go hard every second of every practice,” he called out, trying to motivate young Antonio Jr., who had just been sent off the field for a series. Junior nodded in acknowledgement to his father, who then added one final thought as his son took a sip of water and began to trot back on the field: “It’s the only way to get better, Antonio. Now pick it up out there.”

If he doesn’t, Stafford will. He’s slimmed down, gotten a two inches taller and increased his speed this offseason, waking up countless days at 7 a.m. to work on agility drills and run sprints. He says he’s down to a 4.6, 40-yard dash, but he can still get faster.

“He worked on his footwork all summer,” Truitt said. “And I would think you’re going to see some things we do (in our offense) this year that will show off how much he’s improved just from his junior season.”

Kind of like that intercepted pass that began our tale of the 2013 Tornadoes. It bears noting that the next time Stafford went under center, the pass to the same receiver, on the same side of the field, was perfect — right over the head of the defensive back for a touchdown.

But Stafford didn’t yell or scream or even slap his hands together in celebration. And this time, a lecture wasn’t needed.

“No pressure,” Stafford would say later as he walked off the field with a smile. “No pressure at all.”

NOTES: McCray, who led the Tornadoes with 11 sacks last year, expressed a desire to break the school’s sack record this season. But when asked if he knew what the record was, the senior seemed caught off guard by the question. “I don’t really know,” he laughed. “I guess I needed to find that out.” When told of his star’s statement and asked about the record, Truitt asked, “How many did he say he wanted to get?” To which he was told McCray said his “goal was 20.” Truitt laughed himself before adding, “Yeah, if he gets 20, that’ll do it.” … Other keys on the defense Truitt expects to make an impact this season include Duntarrius Toomer (Jr., DT), Darren Monroe (Sr., DT), and Kavhoris Ransom (Sr., LB). … After facing Brooks County, which went 12-1 and reached the Class AA state quarters last season, on Friday, Monroe’s non-region schedule doesn’t get much easier with back-to-back games against lower-classification powerhouses: Class A Wilcox County and Class AA Fitzgerald. Both teams went 10-3 last season and reached the state quarterfinals … When told that other teams in the region had specifically mentioned Stafford and Monroe as one of the teams to beat in the region, Truitt smiled slightly but was careful in his reaction, saying, “We’re going to be right there, I hope. We’re going to be competitive, for sure.” … Truitt has been a head coach for 12 years, 10 at Monroe and two in his native Americus at Sumter County … Monroe’s coaching staff includes Jesse Hunt (defensive coordinator); Billy Glanton (OC); Travis Lockhart (OL); Deon Lanier (DL); Clifford Wooden (DL); Derrick Battle (DL); Scott Hall (DBs); Jimmy King (RBs); and Cameron Walker (OL). … Stafford said the college that’s No. 1 on his list is Tennessee, which is not actively recruiting him. When asked why, Stafford replied: “I really like coach (Derek) Dooley, and their offense is exactly the same kind we run here: up-tempo and just fast. I like that.”