Check progress. Wellborn has made the playoffs both years under third-year coach Jeff Smith finished 2010 with a winning record (6-5), the Panthers’ first since 2006.
Check talent. At least three players — wide receiver/safety Dalton Screws, two-way lineman DeJuan Traylor and defensive end/tight end Bobby White — are on recruiting radars.
Check experience. Six starters return on offense and defense. Junior quarterback Judd Smith, the coach’s son, and sophomore wingback Chantz Goodman each have 22 starts.
So many checks to suggest the Panthers are bound for a breakthrough, but there’s just one big question mark. Running back Delrickus Rhoden, the most recent player face of the program the past three years, has moved on.
Freshman running back Kevin Mixon looks to have the makings of a rising check mark.
“He’s an exceptional player,” coach Smith said. “One time we were playing Talladega in a junior-high football game, and he dragged their whole team into the end zone from about the 8-yard line by himself.
“At that point, I was watching him do that, and I said to myself, ‘Lord, that boy right there just touched greatness.’”
It’ll take a while for Mixon to grasp greatness. Rhoden had three thousand-yard rushing seasons at Wellborn.
At 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, Mixon will chase greatness with his own style. Rhoden was a bigger back.
“Del is more the type he’ll try to run you over,” said Traylor, a senior who has gone up against both in practice. “Kevin is more shifty. When you go to wrap up, he’ll backpedal a little.”
Coach Smith calls Mixon “a totally different back” from Rhoden, saying Mixon compares more favorably to Goodman.
“They’re small, compact, real muscular,” Smith said. “Both of them have good vision and good feet. They look more like wishbone halfbacks than a traditional ‘I’ tailback.”
While Mixon and Rhoden have different styles, they have opportunity in common. Like Rhoden, Mixon will start as a freshman.
He’s already off to a promising start. He highlighted a spring jamboree rout of Westbrook Christian with touchdown runs of 7 and 35 yards on Jacksonville State University’s Snow-Burgess Field.
Wellborn’s starters played three quarters and rolled up 330 yards in total offense during that span. Goodman also ran for two touchdowns.
Jeff Smith sees a more flexible offense with Mixon in the mix, and Goodman likes what Mixon brings to the mix.
“With me, Kevin and Judd, we can step it up real good,” Goodman said. “Del’s gone, and we’re going to miss him, but we’ve got to have somebody to step it.
“Kevin has real high confidence. He’s little, but he’s a tough kid. He can make things happen.”
If Wellborn’s running game remains potent, then look for Judd Smith and Screws to take advantage when defenses over-commit. They hooked up for a 64-yard touchdown pass in the Westbrook game.
Screws is getting looks from Jacksonville State, Samford and others as a wide receiver.
“He’s our best play-maker, to me,” Judd Smith said. “I can throw it as far as I can, and he’ll go get it.”
So, the check marks are there for Wellborn.
Of course, the Panthers can also place a big check mark beside competition. The Panthers still share a Class 3A region with Clay County, Leeds, Handley and others.
The good news is that Wellborn gets Clay County and Handley at home.
The other good news is that Mixon has a chance to turn a big question mark into a check as he steps in for Rhoden.
“It’s a big responsibility to take,” he said. “I know my teammates have my back. They’re teaching me and telling me what I need to do and getting me ready for what varsity is like.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.