“We have a lot of those same kids coming back from last year that helped us with winning those six straight games and taking us to the third round. The early season part of the schedule is so tough with Auburn, Callaway, Central and Wetumpka on the front end that it really gets you ready for the playoffs. Whether you win or lose, it's all about preparation for that final part of the season, those hopefully last five games.”
- Erik Speakman, Opelika head coach
The standard of going deep in the Class 6A playoffs has been set at Opelika. Now, it’s the newest crop of Bulldogs’ chance to follow that path and chase the program’s first state title.
Opelika’s roster boasts talent, but several players will need to step up in bigger roles to make championship aspirations realistic. Rising senior Brody Davis steps up as starting quarterback after backing up Samford signee Cade Blackmon for the past two seasons.
Although Davis was relegated to a reserve role, Opelika head coach Erik Speakman has been pleased by how Davis is handling himself now as the presumptive starter.
“Brody's done a great job of stepping into that role,” Speakman said. “He's had a really good summer and a really good spring going into the summer. He's done a great job of leading.”
The Bulldogs also have a huge hole to fill with the graduation of Brantan Barnett at running back. The hard-charging Barnett kept the offense moving forward throughout 2018; Speakman is hoping that some combination of Kani Kellum, Nate Evans and Eric Watts will pick up where the Mississippi College signee left off.
The majority of Opelika’s returning star power from last fall can be found at receiver. Most of the team’s top pass-catchers are back for 2019 as part of a talented position group that includes Omar Holloway, Marien Warner, Quay Ross, Will Beams and Jamius Mitchell. Expect star safety Jaylen Stinson to also put his sub-4.40 40-yard dash speed on display from time to time.
Depth is the name of the game for the Bulldogs’ offensive line. Speakman said he feels like they have 10 players who they can put in the game, which will be crucial as the season wears on. Rising senior James Dawson, who has moved from guard to center, is chief among those linemen.
Experience can pay serious dividends in high school football. In Opelika’s case, the team’s secondary has no shortage of veterans.
Opelika has five upperclassmen in this year’s secondary — four seniors and a junior — with a group that includes seniors Stinson and Kory McCoy. The Bulldogs’ defensive backs have been tested a time or two in their careers, and Speakman believes that could prove to be very beneficial against a loaded schedule.
“Defensively, it's probably the biggest area where we need experience,” Speakman said. “Those guys see so many different things that you don't get if you're just a d-lineman defending the run or some pass rush stuff with the different offenses we see throughout the year and what we do to try to defend it.
“Those guys remember it, whereas if you've got a young kid who hasn't been with us they're not going to know those things. Having veterans back there is going to be vital to our success this year.”
Linebacker remains the biggest concern defensively after graduating JaQuan Foote and TeKael DeMunn from last year’s team. From what Speakman has seen so far, Taylor Love, Dino Martin and Malachi Tatum are the frontrunners to fill those roles.
Speakman explained the defensive line is filled with players who are expected to shine. Tre'Von Moore, Ja'Kai Stephens, E.J. Thomas, J.P. Parker and Miles Magee have spent the summer proving themselves, and they appear on track to be true disruptors as part of the Bulldogs’ front seven.
With the Opelika offense settling in so many new faces, expect the Bulldogs’ defenders to really flex their muscles in the early portion of the fall.