Following the first preseason scrimmage of the season Friday against the Clinton High School Dragons, Lenoir City High School head football coach Jeff Cortez walked away with a smile on his face.
“Offensively, we know we’re young there and the good news was we didn’t turn the ball over,” Cortez said. “We didn’t have a bunch of non-effort penalties, so that was good. The formats are what they are, but it was just good trying to execute against a different defense.”
There were many unknowns surrounding the offense during the offseason, but the Panthers are quickly finding an identity under a new set of athletic quarterbacks.
One of the biggest surprises this summer has been the rise of junior quarterback Mason Stanley, who is poised to lead the huddle after the graduation of seniors Gabe Williams and Devin Noah.
“Like I’ve said before with the 7-on-7s, it was just good to get to play against other people and see how we can match up against them,” Stanley said. “I think I did all right. I could’ve done better. I mean, I was just doing what the coaches told me. We had good blocking on the offensive line and that gave me time to make plays.”
The offensive line was tasked with slowing down a talented Clinton defensive line.
“I thought we played pretty decent for a first scrimmage,” Kaleb McKee, senior center, said. “There were a few mental mistakes here and there, but I thought we were pretty physical on the offensive line and defensive line. I guess it’s all right to make mistakes in practices and scrimmages so we can improve in the regular season.”
Most of the questions surrounding this year’s offense have revolved around the offensive line, which took a big hit due to graduation.
However, the group has slowly come along.
“We’re definitely closer, not even just because of playing together on the field,” McKee said. “The camps we’ve been to this summer, and I just feel like we’re a band of brothers. This year feels so much different than most recent years that we’ve had. I feel like the connection we’ve built as an offensive line and a team in general is just amazing.”
The biggest positive from Friday’s scrimmage was how well the defense performed, especially against the unique offense the Dragons run.
“I had seen on film where they ran about half of it was Wing-T, half of it was some shotgun stuff,” Cortez said. “Honestly, we worked one day on Wing-T stuff and the rest of it, we just kept going over certain things to get us ready for the big season. It was good to see a lot of Wing-T because Rhea County’s going to be Wing-T, and that’s going to be real important down the road. I think the best benefit for us defensively was to see Wing-T, read guards or realize we weren’t reading guards and getting ourselves fooled, which was good for us.”
Fortunately for the Panthers, Cortez believes the most glaring issues are minor details that can be fixed prior to the season opener Aug. 23 at Heritage High School.
The Panthers will have ample opportunity to shore up those mistakes this week when they face their second test of the preseason at 6 p.m. Friday at home against Sequoyah High School.
“The parts that we kind of messed up on or we need to work on are little fundamental things, little scheme things,” Cortez said. “It wasn’t like it was a physical issue. We weren’t getting beat down the field, we weren’t getting out speed rushed ... it wasn’t a physical issue. Our self mistakes were self-inflicted, and we need to take this week to take a step forward fundamentally and have a good week.”