The Cleburne County Tigers will be pointing toward their fourth playoff appearance in five years in 2014. Last year, the Tigers were 6-4 in the regular season, finishing third in their region, then won a pair of Class 4A playoff games before losing to eventual 4A state champions Oneonta in the quarterfinal round.

Reclassification, and the addition of a Class 7A for the 32 largest schools in the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s membership, has dramatically changed Cleburne County’s region opponents for this year and next. Cherokee County, Hokes Bluff and Jacksonville remain with Cleburne County in the new Class 4A, Region 6. Traditional rival Alexandria as well as Anniston and Lincoln are now 5A. Munford remained 4A, and remained on Cleburne County’s schedule, but moved to a new region. The Tigers’ four new region opponents are Crossville, Saks, Sardis and White Plains.       

“It will be a challenge. First of all, because we’re playing some schools we’ve never played. I’ve never seen Crossville or Sardis or White Plains play a football game,” Cleburne County head coach Michael Shortt said. “That in itself is a challenge for us coaches. We’ve never seen these people play. There’s no rivalry with them so we’re looking at developing a rivalry with all these schools.”

It won’t take the Tigers long to get introduced to some of their new region foes. After opening region play on the road against Cherokee County on Sept. 5, Cleburne County has home games against White Plains and Crossville on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19 respectively.   

“I like our new region. I think it will be a competitive region,” Shortt said. “I guess it will be nice to play someone different for a change.”   

The Tigers open the regular season on the road at Munford Friday. Munford opened last Friday with a 10-7 regular-season loss to Class 5A Clay Central, the same night Cleburne County scored a 35-2 jamboree win over visiting 2A Woodland.    

“Hadn’t changed a lick. Still doing the same plays, just letting somebody else run them,” Shortt said of Munford after watching the Lions and new quarterback Brett Haynie on film. “Defensively, they haven’t changed. Offensively, they haven’t changed either.”    

Then Shortt took a few minutes to assess his team’s win over Woodland in which the Tigers’ defense caused a fumble and returned it for a touchdown and had three interceptions.

“Defensively, we played well. Offensively, in spurts we did. We’ve just got to get all these people playing together at the same time,” he said. “After watching the film, it would be one person here missed an assignment and one person there. That cost us early in the game, not having field position, but we had some big plays.”        

Senior quarterback Brady Padgett and junior wide receiver Jeremiah Blake were involved in two of those big plays as the pair combined on touchdown passes of 13 yards and 10 yards.

Graduation took a number of players who had been three-year starters. Shortt said the 2014 edition of the Tigers has been working hard to overcome those losses.

“We’re going to lean real heavily on our defense early in the season and give our offensive line time to learn our system and to jell,” Shortt said. “They’ve worked hard. They get better each week. It’s just going to take some games. We can’t simulate in practice the type of speed we see or the type of linemen we’ll be going against.”    

“Munford’s going to show us where we need to be. The Munford game will help us out tremendously,” Shortt added.

The defensive unit will be fronted by ends Grant Corkren and Terrence Thompson and nose tackle Chris Chappell. Corkren started every 2013 game as a freshman. Chappell, a 300-pound senior, could be an immovable object in the middle of the line if he can avoid injuries that have plagued him the past two years. Thompson, a junior, will play on defense for the first time and brings the threat of a speedy pass rush.

Seniors Alex Sandmann and Cole Corkren and junior Austin Harler will form a three-man rotation for two inside linebacker positions. All three will play on offense, too, and the rotation will be adjusted to keep fresh legs on the field.    

Sophomore Chad Brown will start at strong side linebacker with junior Colton Austin pushing him. Junior Wade Dasinger and sophomore Mario Smith are in a battle for the other starting assignment.   

Junior cornerback Noah Ware is the only secondary player returning with much experience. Senior Brandon Horn will probably start at the other corner with Corey Davis the relief on both sides. Blake and senior Sam Cooper are the safeties, where Skye Jarrell will be the backup.

In the offensive backfield, the Tigers will feature a stable of running backs including Horn, Ware, Cooper and sophomore Json Henson. When Padgett takes snaps from under center, Cole Corkren or Harler will be his fullback.

Blake and Horn are the top of the list of receivers. Jarrell, Thompson and Stashun Henson will play reserve roles at receiver.  Senior Tyler Berry and Brown are the tight ends. Cleburne County frequently throws to its backs, too.

Along the offensive line only senior center Blake Pointer has experience at the position he will be playing in 2014. Sandmann and sophomore Sam Pate will be the guards. Senior Brint Johnson and sophomore John Robinson are the tackles.       

“I’ve got to be patient as a coach to watch our offense come along,” Shortt noted. “I think we can be a good football team as the year goes along but we’ve got to be patient. Our players have to understand how much we’ve got to grow as a team, having this many young players playing.”

One thing that won’t change is Shortt’s commitment to making playing time available to lots of players in the early going.

“We’re going to eventually have our best eleven out there but right now, like we do every year, we’re going to try to get as many out there playing as possible. To me, it’s always worked because if I play as many as I can, rotate as many as we can early in the season, then all of a sudden you’ve got that injury but it’s not a guy coming out there (as a replacement) that’s never played a snap,” he said.

Cleburne County starts its stretch run of region games at Jacksonville on Oct. 3. Home dates with Sardis and Saks follow the next two Fridays. The Tigers finish region play at Hokes Bluff on Oct. 24.

“I think as the season goes along and as we get farther on into our region schedule we’ll be a team that can get into the playoffs,” Shortt predicted.    

After that, anything can happen.