Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

SPORTS >> Numbers down at Cabot

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

Replacing the offensive line was issue number one for the Cabot Panthers as spring practice got under way last week. Trying to make do with a much smaller roster was near the top of the list as well.

Incoming senior Walt James is the only returning starter on last year’s O-line in an offense that returns only three starters overall.

“We only have about four that have really good experience,” head coach Mike Malham said of his offensive personnel. “So really, the offensive line is what we’re really looking at. I think we’ve got some kids that are going to be pretty good. When it’s all said and done, hopefully, we’ll be as good as we were last year there.”

The damage is much more minimal on defense, with one vacant linebacker slot, along with two secondary positions open and two more on the defensive line. Malham said the spring unit of only 45, which includes only one current freshman, has been hard at work trying to fill the openings.

The Panthers were 84 strong last year and enjoyed plenty of depth, but the 24 departing seniors, including 13 starters, has given Malham and the coaching staff more positions to fill.

In Class 7A, where depth is of the utmost importance, Malham is trying to avoid a repeat of the 2007 season, when injuries and limited depth had Cabot limping to the finish line, though it did earn a last-minute playoff berth. With more players potentially playing on both offense and defense in the fall, Malham said the objective is to cover as many spots as possible with more than one person.

“It always is a concern, because if you get one of those guys hurt, you lose two starters,” said Malham, who will begin his 28th season as head Panther in the fall. “So if you have to have them play both ways, you at least like to have rotations so they don’t have to play both ways the whole game.”

Several of the skill-position players return, including quarterback Seth Bloomberg and fullback Michael James. Both will be seniors in the fall, as will Matt Bayles, who did not start in 2008, but saw plenty of action at the halfback position while sharing time with graduated cousin Chris Bayles.

The six returning defensive players are led by all-conference linebacker Spencer Neumann, with defensive end Jared Maxwell, linemen Jay Turpin and T.J. Bertrand, as well as Joe and Powell Bryant in the secondary also returning.

Neumann and James were both running backs in their days together at Cabot Junior High North, but Neumann was moved to defense when the two reached the varsity level. Malham said their upcoming senior year could be a backfield reunion for the two.

“We’re just trying to find out who can play,” said Malham. “We worked James on the defensive side and Neumann on the offensive side, because we may play both of them on defense and rotate at fullback. Neumann is just as good a running back as James. It’s just that we’ve always used Neumann at linebacker his first two years, and James was on offense because we had plenty of depth.

“But we don’t think we’re going to be as deep this year. So if we can get the best on the field, we have to put James on that defensive side too, and there’s no way you’re going to carry it 30 times and play linebacker the whole game. So it could be the two of them playing defense and then rotating on offense.”

He added that Maxwell was working at the fullback spot as well and may also see double duty in the fall.

“We had a pretty good week last week,” he said. “We worked four days. Friday, we had graduation and a lot of stuff going on. Plus, we had some kids getting ready to go to the state track meet on Saturday, so we just went to the weight room and did some weights.”

Cabot will begin 7A-Central Conference play this fall as the defending league champs. It was a salty defense and ball-controlling offense that allowed the Panthers to win their final four conference games on their way to the title. Malham said that while there will not be quite as much depth, he hopes that quality will allow the Panthers to equal last year’s success.

“We’ve got a chance to be decent,” said Malham. “I’ll tell you, the weights are getting there, and we’ve got some kids that run pretty well. We have some decent team speed. If we can just get them to where they can figure it out, I think we could be pretty good next year.”