Opelika Bulldogs vs. Stanhope Elmore Mustangs

Opelika's Eric Watts (37) runs with the ball in the first half. Opelika Bulldogs vs. Stanhope Elmore Mustangs on Friday, Oct. 19, at Opelika.

The good news for the Opelika Bulldogs is they have their first home game of 2019 on Thursday after having just four home games last fall. The bad news is their opponent is going to be far from a pushover.

Opelika (0-0) hosts Callaway (0-0) tonight at Bulldog Stadium for both teams’ first game of the new season. The 7 p.m. showdown is a rematch of last year’s opener, which Callaway won at home 35-21.

Opelika enters 2019 fresh off a 7-5 campaign that saw the team reach the Class 6A quarterfinals. Callaway, meanwhile, went 11-3 and reached Georgia's Class 2A semifinals.

The Bulldogs have some holes to fill off last year’s team, but second-year head coach Erik Speakman has been pleased with the work he’s seen from his latest batch of players.

“We've had a really good offseason this year with some good senior leadership and some guys who have taken ownership of the team and really directed the young guys. That led to a great summer,” Speakman said. “We've had a good two weeks of practice leading into game week.”

Quarterback is one of the positions that will feature a new face against the Cavaliers. Brody Davis steps in for Cade Blackmon, who is now a freshman quarterback at Samford. The 6-foot-1 Davis doesn’t lack for experience, as he played a good bit as a sophomore when Blackmon was sidelined due to injury.

While Davis is Opelika’s guy at quarterback, the Bulldogs will have several different players who will line up behind him. Running back Brantan Barnett graduated and is now at Mississippi College, and Speakman expects a group including Kani Kellum, Nate Evans and Eric Watts to carry the load this fall.

“Fortunately, we've got about five guys who bring something different to the table that we'll be able to put into a game. We'll use all five of them Thursday night,” Speakman said. “Usually, guys that haven't had to have a bunch of carries will hopefully give you some good, quality carries as you get into the third and fourth quarter. We'll find out (tonight) if that's going to be the case.”

Defensively, linebacker was a question mark after the departures of Austin Peay signees TeKael DeMunn and JaQuan Foote. Speakman named Dino Martin, Taylor Love, Malachi Tatum and Kevin Lilly as the players who will split time in the team’s two linebacker spots tonight.

When it comes to Callaway, Speakman said the story starts with running back Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby. Bigsby, who committed to Auburn earlier this month, is a force at 6-foot and 210 pounds. Bigsby ran for over 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior, which included a 249-yard effort against the Bulldogs.

“I told the kids on defense yesterday that this is a chance to play against somebody who will be a major college player,” Speakman said. “It's not often you get to do that, where you get a chance to compete against somebody of his level.”

As impressive as Bigsby is, Speakman emphasized Callaway has several other college-ready players. In addition to offensive lineman and fellow Auburn commit Tate Johnson, Speakman pointed out quarterback Demetrius Coleman, tight end Charlie Dixon and wide receiver/defensive back Jacob Freeman as true standouts.  

Speakman explained the uber-talented Callaway team will serve as a great measuring stick for the Bulldogs as they chase after a state championship.

“We'll have back-to-back really big games that kind of let us know what we need to work on. A team like Callaway will expose any weaknesses you have,” Speakman said. “The following week against Auburn, they'll do the exact same thing. This will be good for us to come out. The goal is to obviously win the game, but the major goal is to get better.”

Speakman said the Bulldogs will have to slow down Bigsby to have a shot at winning, adding that he doesn’t know anyone who will completely stop the four-star running back. Additionally, Speakman emphasized not biting on play-action as well as clean tackling, especially with it being the first game of the year.

On offense, Speakman said the name of the game is avoiding turnovers. The Bulldogs had three turnovers and gave up 21 points off them in the two-touchdown loss to the Cavaliers last year.

The Bulldogs have had all offseason to gear up for another fall of football. Now the opener has arrived, and the team is eager to prove themselves in a stadium full of their fans.

“It will be nice to stay at home and have a big crowd coming in,” Speakman said. “The kids, I know they're fired up. They were ready to roll Monday. We showed them the pre-game highlight video, and that got everybody's juices flowing. It'll be an exciting night Thursday night.”

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