In two of the three region losses – Anniston and Munford – Cleburne County led at halftime. Losses to Munford and Alexandria came down to the final seconds. The Lions scored to win with fewer than three seconds remaining. The Valley Cubs tipped away a pass in the end zone with 20 seconds left that could have led to a Cleburne County victory.
After so many disappointments in close games last year, Cleburne County head coach Michael Shortt said he and his assistants stressed protecting leads and finishing strong in spring practice and over the summer.
“If we can finish ball games, finish quarters, if we can finish ball games then I feel good about the season,” Shortt said earlier this week. “I feel we can be in the playoffs.”
There is reason for optimism. The Tigers return last year’s starting quarterback, junior Brady Padgett, and senior running back Trey Bolton is healthy again after a high ankle sprain severely limited him in the second half of 2012. Isaiah Ware, who ran well in Bolton’s absence, returns for his senior season but will be more valuable if he is able to spend most of his time on the field on defense at cornerback.
“We feel good about the two running backs,” said Shortt. “We’ve got two seniors back there. More than likely we’ll try to rotate them because Isaiah plays so much defense.”
“When Brady is on, running and throwing, he makes the difference for us,” Shortt added.
Padgett will have a number of experienced targets when he throws, including seniors Christian Henson, Jeremiah McElroy and Matthew Morrow, junior Brandon Horn and sophomore Jeremiah Blake.
As much promise as the skill players show, the best news on offense may be the line where three of last year’s starting five return.
Seniors Damion Benefield (left tackle), Dalton Boyd (right guard) and Matthew Shortt (right tackle) each started last year. Classmate Jamari Thomas missed the entire season after knee surgery. Thomas and junior Tyler Berry are competing for the right tackle position as Shortt makes the switch to left guard. Junior Blake Pointer will start at center. Should Shortt, the coach's son, have to return to tackle, junior Alex Sandmann will be at left guard.
“I feel good right now with seven linemen. Two of them are going to rotate around and play different positions,” the elder Shortt said.
Cameron Kerr and Austin Brooks will play at tight end.
The most dramatic issue on defense will be inexperience at linebacker where outside linebacker Geoffery Teague is the sole returning starter. Morrow will move from safety to give the Tigers a smaller but quicker player at the other outside slot. Inside linebackers will be Sandmann, who played as a backup last year, and Cole Corkren, a promising transfer from Oxford. Sophomore Dawson Howle will be the reserve.
At the front of Cleburne County’s 3-4 look on defense, Shortt and Chris Chappell will share the nose guard. Senior Drake Williamson returns at one end. Who will play the opposite end remains “up for grabs.”
The secondary will be a strength. Safeties Griffin Turner and McElroy started last year as did Isaiah Ware at cornerback. Henson and Noah Ware are working at the other corner. Henson can also play safety.
“Is this a group of All-Americans?” Shortt asked rhetorically before answering his own question. “No. But it’s a group that’s played together for a long time. We’ve got a lot of seniors and they believe in themselves. I know a lot of people may not believe in them but they always believe in themselves.”
Cleburne County at a glance
Head coach: Michael Shortt (114-58 in 15 years, all at Cleburne County)
Last year’s record: 5-5, including 4-3 in Class 4A, Region 5. Not in playoffs.
Outlook: The Tigers started 0-3 last year. One or two early wins would set a different tone to the 2013 season. As a junior, Trey Bolton ran for more than 900 yards in Cleburne County’s first six games but was never recovered from a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 6. A healthy Bolton spells trouble for Heflin opponents.
Aug. 30 vs. Weaver
Sept. 6 at Anniston #
Sept. 13 vs. Munford #
Sept. 20 at Cherokee County #
Sept. 27 vs. St. Clair County
Oct. 4 vs. Hokes Bluff #
Oct. 11 at Alexandria #
Oct. 18 vs. Jacksonville #
Oct. 25 at Lincoln #
Nov. 1 at Woodland
# Denotes region game.