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2021 FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Spring Garden seeks to deliver another ‘dandy’ season

Spring Garden senior receiver Cooper Austin snags a pass and turns upfield against Ranburne during a 7-on-7 scrimmage at Piedmont last month. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

SPRING GARDEN – Anyone who’s played football for Jason Howard at Spring Garden knows what the dandy dozen is.

On the Panthers’ heavy run days, they conclude their practice sessions with a dozen 50-yard sprints, also known as gassers. Following the 11th one, Howard tests the Panthers’ IQ with a trivia question pertaining to the program’s football history or that week’s opponent. The correct answer cuts off the last sprint, but a wrong answer means the team has to run its last sprint.

“The dandy has been around a long time. It’s gotten passed down from one (class) to the other and another,” Howard said. “They put it in the yearbooks about the dandies. They put it in their last will and testaments about the dandy. Until you’ve experienced it in August, you’ve never really experienced anything like it.”

So far at practices this summer, the Panthers have proven pretty knowledgeable about their history, even if Howard went a little easy on them to begin with.

“This past week, he gave us a really easy question,” senior receiver/defensive back Cooper Austin said. “He said ‘What year did the Spring Garden football team make it the furthest (in the playoffs)?’ It was last year.”

Ah yes. Last year.

The Panthers posted a school record 12-2 season – their first in Class 2A. They fell short in the state semifinals to eventual champion Mars Hill.

If this year’s team is to make a similar run through the playoffs, they’ll have to do it with several new starters, including a new starting quarterback in senior Chaz Pope.

Pope was one of the Panthers’ top receivers last season. He says the transition to quarterback is a little more difficult, but he’s confident in the players he has around him.

“Luke (Welsh), Ryley (Kirk), Weston (Kirk), Nathan Law and the other seniors from last year will definitely be hard to replace, but we’ve got guys who are working hard and have been working hard, even last year, knowing this year they were going to have to step up,” Pope said. “We’re getting better day by day, and that’s the main thing. We’ve just got to continue to go hard. I think we’ll get it together and make it happen. I think it will all come together when it needs to.”

Howard said he couldn’t be more pleased with Pope’s progress behind center.

“He’s had a great summer,” Howard said. “He went to a Furman camp that really helped him out. He’s thrown a ton, worked on his footwork a ton. He’s really improved. I’ve been as pleased as I could be with his progression to this point.”

Pope does have one of the top receivers in Class 2A returning in all-state performer Austin, who caught 31 passes for 638 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Filling Pope’s spot at receiver is his younger brother, sophomore Chapel Pope. Senior Larry Rogers could also see some time at receiver.

The Panthers also return senior Andrew Floyd to the backfield.

“We have to step up because the other guys expect us to,” Floyd said. “We have the physical part. We just need the mental part. We just have to have that drive.”

The most experience Spring Garden has this season is along the offensive line. The entire group returns from last season, but some of their positions have been tweaked.

“We’re trying to do some different things, move some people around,” Howard said. “We moved Landon (Gowens) from center. Right now, we’re looking at Jacob Dempsey at center and Cade Williams possibly. Toward the end of last year, we made that move where we brought Cade in and moved Landon to tackle.

“Zack Kerr and Mathias Williams will be on the left side. Landon will be in the mix somewhere. He’ll either start at tackle or be in the backfield for us. He could start at center if the other two don’t play out. Cade will either start at center or start at guard. Jackson Rogers very easily could start at guard for us if Cade’s at center. Jacob Welsh is also in the rotation.

“Braxton Haney has come in and is playing tight end for us. He’s doing a really good job. Cam Welsh can still play some tight end if we need him to. We’re still playing with some different combinations.”

The Panthers have been forced to play with some of those different combinations due to a few injuries.

“We’ve been hit pretty hard by the injury bug,” Howard said. “Hunter Lewis, who I expected to roll in and be able to play a good bit (as a lineman), dislocated his wrist. Landon’s out with a viral infection. Connor Bates, who was coming on and having a great summer, tweaked his shoulder during a scrimmage. We’re holding him out of contact. Larry Rogers was having a great summer. He was going to be one of our starting wideouts for us, but then he lacerated his kidney. We’re banged up a little bit right now.”

Several of the Panther offensive starters will also flip over on defense, including Jackson Rogers, Williams, Gowens, Bates and Welsh along the line. Floyd is listed as one of the Panther linebackers. The Pope brothers, Austin, Denver Jarrett and Larry Rogers will patrol the Panther secondary.

Spring Garden opens the 2021 season at home against Cedar Bluff on Aug. 26. The Panthers open Region 6 play Sept. 3 at West End of Walnut Grove.

“We’ve got to get behind each other, push each other, remind each other what we’re here for,” Austin said. “I know we made it to the fourth round and came up short last year, but we’ve got to push ourselves to get past that.

“Everybody’s goal is to win a state championship. All of us seniors have been saying all year we haven’t won anything. Everything in the past is in the past. We have something to prove. We’ve got to make our own legacy.”

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