In a bizarre twist, the Panthers' offense is in flux for the second straight year after a scrimmage against Handley. Junior Jonathan Gunning, the team's projected starting quarterback in each of the past two seasons, again broke a collarbone in preseason play against the Judges.
Last season it was a broken left collarbone that sidelined him for the season. This year he broke his right collarbone after what Coach Casey Childs said looked to be a routine tackle on an option run.
"When he got up, I said, 'Good read on the option. Good job,' " Childs said. "We had no idea he was hurt. But then the next play we called a pass, and as soon as he let the ball go he started screaming. It was unbelievable, really.
"And I just feel so bad for the kid. He worked so hard this past winter and spring. He was in there lifting at 7 a.m. every day. I just told him there are other ways he can help the team beyond his physical abilities. The only good news is he's still got another year."
Gunning's injury forced Childs to move junior Dock Horton (6 feet, 170 pounds) from wide receiver to quarterback, where he is the team's projected starter. Junior Chase Whitlow (5-10, 155) also could contribute if he recovers from tendinitis in his elbow.
Helping the quarterbacks in the backfield will be junior RB Mustafa Abugideiri (5-8, 170) and senior RB Jake Bellmer (5-6, 135), as well as senior FBs Jay Branom (6-0, 200) and Daniel Bennett (5-9, 170).
Junior SE Chris Frank (6-0, 170) and junior TE Dominique Cook (6-1, 240) will work on the outside.
"We're still going to be heavy on the option," Childs said. "We've got some quick kids in the backfield, and we've got a big, bruising running back in Branom. So we'll try to knock defenses around with Jay and then go wide with the other guys."
Anchoring the offensive line will be junior G Othman Altalib (5-9, 190), junior T Blaise Ruffing (6-4, 245) and senior C Steven Keesler (5-10, 280).
Branom will lead a defense that returns four starters, and he expects to get help from fellow linebackers Abugideiri, Horton, junior Miles Teague (6-1, 230) and senior Andrew Schraeder (6-0, 200).
The Panthers have good size up front, where the five players expected to figure into the rotation most often -- Cook, Keesler, Ruffing, junior Steve Hancock (6-3, 215) and senior Seth Keiper (6-1, 280) -- average just over 250 pounds.
The secondary will include Bellmer, Frank and senior Kwaku Mensah (6-1, 165), who did not play last season but provides added athleticism at cornerback.
"We have some experience back," Childs said. "I know it doesn't sound like it with the number of returning starters, but they're back at key positions. Plus, we played a lot of sophomores last year, and so those kids have experience even though they may not have started. And that's something we're going to have to capitalize on."
If it weren't for an abundance of turnovers last season, the Panthers likely would have fared much better than their fifth-place finish in the district. They must cut down on such mistakes to be in the mix for the district title.
"We've got to hold on to the football better," Childs said. "It's that simple. And trust me, it's something we're all well aware of."