The Cane Bay Cobras enter their ninth season with Coach Russell Zehr at the helm.
A tight-knit group is aiming to surprise some folks in 2019. After last season, the Cobras lost nearly 30 seniors, including five of their top seven rushers and nine of the top 10 tacklers.
But Zehr believes he has a squad capable of making noise despite flying under the radar. If the Cobras can stay healthy, they can be in the conversation for their first-ever region title.
“They’ve worked hard all summer,” Zehr said. “They work well together. They care about each other. I’ve been pleased. The question is what are they going to do on Friday nights. Some guys step up on Friday and others disappear. We talk to them on a daily basis about playing fast and physical, which is about effort and attitude.”
The Cobras were 5-6 last season and placed second in the Region 7-AAAAA standings before falling in the opening round of the playoffs against West Ashley. Zehr’s team opens up at the Wildcats on Aug. 23.
After West Ashley, the Cobras open the home portion of their schedule on Aug. 30 against Fort Dorchester.
While losses were heavy, Cane Bay does return a pair of quarterbacks with experience, which is a huge plus in an option attack because timing is so important.
Xavier Mitchell-Brown and Alex Mart got more work than anticipated in 2018 when starter Darius Bey suffered a season-ending injury in October.
Mart rushed for 445 yards and three touchdowns while Mitchell-Brown added 230 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Makai Francis also factors into the quarterback race.
Any one of the three could do a solid job, and the other two are athletic enough to help the Cobras elsewhere.
“Our offense has a chance to be pretty good,” Zehr said. “The thing is we have to be able to take advantage when people sell out against the run. We’ve got to be able to throw the screens, hit throws over the top and complete short stuff. We’ve got to incorporate the pass to keep defenses honest, and not just on third down when we have to throw it.”
Keisean Smalls and Louis Brown are the top options out of the backfield but the pool of players that will get involved is deep.
Leon Staley, Jayvion Johnson, Timmy Mickens and Chavier Melvin factor into the mix.
Guard Malachi Jones is a returning starter and tackle Austin Wallace is the other experienced lineman. More starters up front are guard Jacob Drew, tackle Zion Eady and center Taylor Rivera.
Mark Carr is the tight end. Additional linemen are Sava Loria and Taron Madison.
“Our offense is going to be based on how our line does,” Zehr said. “It doesn’t matter how good all those running backs and quarterbacks are if we can’t get movement up front. If we can’t get on linebackers, it’s going to be a moot point. I feel like we’ve got four pretty solid kids up front. We know we’re going to see multiple fronts and they need to know how to make checks and calls, and play fast.”
Marquile Burgess, Robbie Pruitt and Isaiah Watson are the receivers.
Like the offense, the defense is littered with a lot of names new to the varsity limelight.
The top tackler returning is safety Jurrien Mitchell, who made 49 stops last season. To help deal with heavy losses in the secondary, receiver Andre Green has moved to a cornerback spot.
Devon London is the other safety and Brennon Nichols the other cornerback.
Linebackers Austin Carter, Diamonie Carroll and Chris Smoak are all brand new on the second level.
The strength of the defense will be the front. Tackles Zyke Johnson and Lateef Sharpe combined for 52.5 tackles in 2018 and defensive end Dennis Peterson was a starter two seasons ago. Deondre Smith is the other starter and defensive end.
“That’s a quality group,” Zehr said. “We haven’t had four like that in the last couple of years.”
On special teams, Jackson Presley is set to kick and punt while Francis is the holder. Nate Guenther is the long snapper.