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Bobcats working to put together new pieces
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Monday, August 14, 2017

Bobcats working to put together new pieces 

Thanks in large part to the proliferation of 7-on-7 camps and organized team activities (OTAs), high school football coaches now have ample opportunity during the summer to observe their players in the heat of battle. Despite that increased evaluation time, though, the first week of fall practice can still resemble the process of putting together a giant puzzle.

And Phil Campbell head coach Ryan Swinney couldn’t help but notice last week that there seemed to be a few more loose pieces lying around than usual.

“Oh yeah, absolutely. We’ve got a lot of new faces,” said Swinney, now in his fifth season with the Bobcats. “We’re gonna have a new starter at every skill position except for quarterback. The good thing is, I think we may have some depth at those spots. Our overall numbers are down, but we’ve got a pretty good number of skill guys we can move around. We’ve got two or three who can play at each position.”

With the August 25 season opener at Tharptown rapidly approaching, Swinney characterized his team’s first few days of fall camp as a success.

“It went well. I felt like it was pretty productive,” he said. “We tried some different people in different places and started to settle on a few positions. We still have a lot of special teams stuff to get put in, but I thought the first week went well.”

Swinney and his staff face the unenviable task of replacing a handful of departed seniors who started for multiple years on both sides of the ball, guys like Colby Baker, Malique Nalls, Trey Nalls, Austin Riner and Nick Swinney. Senior quarterback Peyton Thomas, who has thrown a total of 30 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, provides a veteran presence on offense, but the cast of skill players around him—aside from senior tight end Brody Nix—is almost entirely new.

“We may not have a lot of starters back,” Swinney said, “but we still have guys who got some experience last year, guys who got to play some. Seth Brindley, who’s gonna be our running back, got to play a good bit last year, because we tried to give Colby some breaks on offense since he was playing both ways.

“Of course, Seth starts on defense, too.”

While Brindley takes over as the featured runner, senior Daniel Smith and sophomore Ben Williams will try and replace the big-play threat Riner provided at outside receiver.

Senior Joe Hardy, who thrived last season as an H-back and slot receiver, would undoubtedly have been the Bobcats’ primary offensive weapon this season, but injuries have forced him to end his playing career prematurely. Hardy missed virtually all of his sophomore season in 2015 after suffering a broken leg in Week 1 against Falkville. He recovered from that setback and had scored a team-best eight combined touchdowns rushing and receiving through five games last season before sustaining a broken ankle against rival Phillips in Week 6.

Hardy, a multi-sport athlete who also plays basketball and baseball at Phil Campbell, made the difficult choice this summer not to return to the football field. Hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 2-8 season last year and return to the playoffs, the Bobcats will have to press on without Hardy, whose leadership in the locker room was just as valuable as his production on the field.

“That hurts,” said Swinney, a staunch admirer of Hardy’s determination and passion for the game of football. “It’s understandable, though. To go through what he went through, nobody should have to go through that—especially a kid who loves the game like he does. It was a decision he made with his family and the doctors, and I’ll honor it a hundred percent.

“As a parent, I understand it. As a coach, I hate it, because I’d love to have him out there. But as a parent, I’m almost glad he’s not, not after what he had to go through the last two years.”

Swinney hopes to see Hardy exert whatever positive influence he can on the Bobcats this season.

“He’s still gonna be a part of our team,” Swinney said. “We want him to be down there on Friday nights and at practices whenever he can, because all of our guys respect him so much. He’s still a Bobcat football player. It’s just not the role he wanted to be in. But it’s a decision that had to be made, and it’s the right one.”

The tall task of replacing Hardy at H-back and in the slot falls to the trio of Sam Pierce, Brandon Baker (who had a strong spring game in May) and Hunter Hutcheson, who filled in capably for Hardy last season before sustaining an injury of his own in the season finale at Hackleburg. Swinney said Monday that Hutcheson had just recently gotten his medical release to return to the field.

With only 26 players expected to dress out on Friday nights this fall, the Bobcats will certainly need all hands on deck. Many players—including Brindley, Nix, junior guard/linebacker Gage Cook and senior fullback/end Jason Mansell, among several others—will play key roles on both sides of the ball.

“We’ll have some guys who may never come off the field,” Swinney said. “Conditioning-wise, we’re in pretty good shape on that. It’s been so hot and humid, I don’t know if you ever get prepared for that. But most of the guys are doing well.”

Swinney said special teams would be a priority for the Bobcats this week, and then next week their focus will shift to the opener against the county rival Wildcats. Phil Campbell beat Tharptown 20-0 last season in Week 1 in a weather-shortened game at Parrish Field.

“We’ve got a lot to do this week,” Swinney said. “Last week we had three days in shorts, and then we did some hitting on Thursday and Friday, a little scrimmaging. We’ll pick that up this week. We’ve gotta get our kicking game and special teams stuff lined up.

“This week is a critical week. We’ll have to work on all of it every day to get ready.”

 

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