ALBANY — Like many of his veteran players, Albany Panthers coach Lucious Davis debated whether or not to come back this season after winning back-to-back indoor football championships.
It turns out, his toughest decision is yet to come.
The Panthers released their 2013 training camp roster on Monday — a list that includes quarterbacks Cecil Lester, Darnell Kennedy and James Stedman — and Davis has three weeks to pick between the trio, who all played in last season’s PIFL title game.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Davis, who signed a contract last July that keeps him with the team until the end of this season.
The Panthers will cut their roster to 27 on March 2, and Davis expects to have a number of tough decisions from a training camp roster that he says is the deepest he has ever had.
But no decision is bigger than the one at quarterback.
Lester — one of the veterans who hinted at retirement after last season — has been the starting QB in Albany the past two seasons, and Kennedy relieved an injured Lester for the final five games of the 2012 season and tossed a game-high four TDs in the championship game against Richmond.
Stedman was Richmond’s backup QB last season but took the field in the title game when starter Antwon Young was ejected and finished the night with two rushing TDs and two passing TDs.
“Stedman came in the second half and played lights out,” Davis said. “So it’s not like we are bringing in a slouch.”
The team’s first practice is Feb. 19, and Davis said Lester has the early leg-up in the quarterback competition.
“He is my returning guy for three years,” Davis said. “He knows what I want and how I want it. He knows certain throws. But Darnell also makes some good throws and good decisions. And Stedman is a younger guy who is bigger than Cecil and Darnell. It’s going to be a tough decision.”
Only two key players from last season’s championship team didn’t come back this year — defensive lineman Tito Hannah and former Albany State wide receiver Clenton Rafe — which doesn’t leave many open spots on the roster.
Returning starters are wide receivers and former Americus-Sumter stars Antwon Cutts and John Harris and Westover grad Antwone Savage; offensive linemen Terrance Smith, Aaron Wheeler, Deandre Williams and Demetrice Jackson; fullback Derrick Wimbush; defensive linemen Anton Ceaser and Chauncey Debose; linebackers Larry Edwards and Corey Rue; defensive back Damian Daniels; and kicker Ryan Gates.
Also returning will be defensive back and former Albany State star Demetrie McCray, who was a key member of the 2011 SIFL championship team.
“I think this will be the first camp where we have some true competition,” Davis said. “Some of the guys I am going to have to cut are good enough to go someplace else and start.”
One of those new faces competing for a roster spot is defensive back and South Carolina grad Stoney Woodson, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Giants and bounced between the Giants, Eagles and Buccaneers practice squads for the next year.
“He is good,” Davis said. “He is quick, physical and has all the skills we are looking for.”
The Panthers will have nine practices before a March 1 scrimmage game at 6 p.m., which will beDavis’ final opportunity to evaluate his players before final cuts the following morning.
“(These first weeks) are important because we have so many returning guys, and you have a tendency to get complacent,” Davis said. “It’s important to go into training camp with a frame of mind that last year is over and this is a new season. We have the same goals, but there is still some room for improvement. It’s important these next two weeks to improve on the little things.”