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Panthers set to establish depth

Panthers set to establish depth
Panthers set to establish depth
Corydon Central coach Mike Spencer goes over defensive assignments with players during practice. Photos by Brian Smith

Depth has become a key goal to build during the preseason as the Corydon Central football team, coming off a 6-4 campaign in 2013, heads into the new gridiron year.
With the upcoming start to the season, the Panthers do so with a new head coach in Hall of Fame member Mike Spencer. After spending last season as an assistant at Corydon Central, Spencer took the head coaching job after the program’s all-time winningest coach, Darin Ward, departed for Mid-Southern Conference rival Charlestown.
‘It was two days, and I was back in my routine,’ Spencer said. ‘This is such a great bunch of kids. They are rising to expectations and working hard.’
Spencer retired with a 204-100 career record after 2011. At his last stop, at Perry Central, Spencer averaged nearly 10 wins per season.
So far as the head man at Corydon Central, Spencer likes what he sees out of the program that has posted five straight seasons of winning records.
‘There aren’t guarantees when you go out there, but the one thing I think this group will do is go hard from the time we start to the time we finish,’ Spencer said. ‘They have a determination to make this a success. They understand each week is a journey and, at the end of this, we want to be the best team we can be heading into the tournament.’
Spencer said the Panthers want to be in the Mid-Southern Conference mix, along with being a contender come sectional time. To do this, the Panthers will need depth.
‘We have young kids working hard to help create that depth,’ he said.
The veteran coach keeps most of his messages to players frank. One of the most important is putting the best out on the field on Friday nights.
‘I tell our kids, very simply, that we have one varsity team,’ Spencer said. ‘Whatever our number is, freshmen through seniors, that’s our team. When we play Friday night, we put our best out there. The people who have quarters left can play in reserve games. We’re going to do everything we can to win on Friday night.’
Creating competition in practice has allowed the coaching staff to create depth at positions as well as flexibility.
A bulk of the returning experience lies on the offensive side of the ball. On the flip side, only four starters are back on defense.
‘When we look at the kids we have that can fill in and do things, we feel like we will have a really good nucleus,’ Spencer said. ‘From there, it is filling in the depth we need to stay competitive. At the 3A level, you’ll get knocked around a bit, and you have to have some depth.’
Several offensive linemen return for the Panthers, including center David Brann. Daniel Kimmel played half the reps on varsity last season and slides into a full-time role. Other veterans, including Cameron Ayers and Nathan Schmidt, play on the offensive line. Schmidt could also see time at full back.
‘David Brann, our returning center, is a really heady kid,’ Spencer said. ‘He understands what we want to do with our blocking schemes and keeps us focused there. Ayers is a little heavier this year, but we need to make sure he stays in shape. He controls it well and has good quickness for a lineman.’
Curtis Miller, Jacob Hoback and Travis Phelps are among the others competing for line spots.
In the backfield, quarterback Lannis Buck has grown after starting last season as a sophomore, when he passed for 600 yards.
‘He’s a little stronger, a year older and smarter at football,’ Spencer said. ‘He can visualize things better.’
Spencer said he’s pleased with quarterback depth thus far with sophomore Alec Saulman and freshman Zach Paden.
‘We’re thankful for the three quarterbacks we have because they are tough and competitive,’ Spencer added.
Carrying the ball will be returning fullback Ben Woodward, who had 52 carries a year ago. Alex Newton heads into full-time duty at running back after rushing for 292 yards last season. Spencer noted Austin Kopp and Zach Mason are young running backs with speed.
Making a position change is Tristan Blake, a senior moving from guard to tight end.
‘He started as a guard last year, and we’ve switch him to tight end. If you can block on the line of scrimmage, you can block as an end,’ Spencer said.
The top two returning receivers are Josh Allen and T.J. Mathes; both had a tad more than 100 yards receiving.
‘T.J. is a big target at 6-3, 175 pounds and runs well,’ Spencer said. ‘Josh Allen, we’ll use him at running back and slot receiver. He’s versatile. He’s a good athlete that is putting all he’s got into this season. He understand whatever we do, we do as a team.’
Cody Catlett is another wide out who caught balls a season ago, while Alex Engleman and Jordan Watson will get looks.
The offense seeks to be balanced under Spencer.
‘We have to change up things a bit because our personnel is different,’ Spencer said. ‘We’re going to try and establish a run game. It’s a basic philosophy with me because, in the fall in the state of Indiana, you are going to have a couple of nights that are going to be miserable. It can be a flood, high winds, cold, something that makes the passing game difficult. We want to be able to do both but really be able to do them effectively. We feel like we have some people that can catch the ball.’
Defense is where Spencer had initial concerns coming into the season. The effort and openness of players to take on multiple roles has eased the transition.
‘Anytime there is only four returners coming back on defense, you wonder how you will fill those places,’ Spencer said. ‘We’ve had older kids step up and younger ones fill in, so our defense is getting deeper. In our scrimmage, we played very well, but it was just a scrimmage.’
Among the returnees is Allen, who played in the secondary but will see time at linebacker. The trio of Travis Phelps, Steven Sallee and Schmidt posted good numbers on the defensive line as starters. All three are the top returners in the tackle category, led by 46 from Schmitt to go with five sacks.
‘Sallee has good strength and quickness,’ Spencer said. ‘He’s a hard-nosed kid. He doesn’t say a whole lot; he’s just a do-er.’
Other players were sprinkled into games so they aren’t completely green when it comes to varsity action. Mathes and Watson played some defense, while Tristan Houghlin, Wade Thomas, Kopp and Blake can play linebacker. Competition has Austin Smith, Jacob Wallot, Saulman, Newton and Woodward helping create depth at linebacker.
In the secondary, Zach Mason, Chase LaHue and Houghlin could see reps.
Defensively, Spencer has a bend-but-not-break mentality.
‘We don’t want to give up big plays, but we feel like, if we can make teams run play after play, the odds go to us,’ he said. ‘We want to make teams earn every yard they get. It’s our job to make sure we are teaching good, sound techniques. A big part of defense is being in the right place.’
On special teams, Newton returns as the punter and will battle Blake for the kick-off duties. Spencer said the team is trying out soccer players at place-kicker, including a member of the girls’ soccer program, Mariah Jo Nye.
‘We’re not set there yet, but we have a young lady trying to kick. She is here every day practicing,’ Spencer said.
Overall, Spencer said a key will be building the depth. A team with more than 11 seniors, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out not all can be on the field at the same time. With that, the coach is teaching the players about being versatile so when the best is needed on the field, they can be there together.
‘Our feeling is, we have to teach these kids to play both sides of the ball because, when you need the very best, we can have it,’ he said. ‘At the same time, we want to start many young men. If we have a reason to make a change, they are versatile enough on both sides of the ball, we can insert someone and keep ourselves at a high level. We need to be two, three deep at each position. We are realistic enough that kids will need a break or rest; being deep allows that.’
The Panthers hope to stay healthy, but the competition will have them better if a situation arises.
‘You have to have people ready to fill in and when their number is called,’ Spencer said. ‘You hope they fill in well. That’s what we are trying to convince these kids they are going to get their shot, but, when you get it, you have to know what you are doing. If we don’t see it in practice, we’re probably not going to see it in a game.’
The Panthers will load the bus Friday for the season opener, heading to Class 2A No. 6 Southridge.
‘This is a tough opener against a quality team,’ Spencer said. ‘We know going in we have to be at our best. These games should make our kids excited to go out and do their best.’
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.