Wellborn's Machristie and Mixon

Wellborn's Landon Machristie (12) and Kevin Mixon take part in Panthers' practice.

WELLBORN — Wellborn High football players have had a long time to think about how the 2013 season ended.

The Panthers have fallen in the second round of the playoffs the last three years, including a 35-21 loss to Fyffe at The Hill last year.

The immediate disappointment fueled motivation, and that has stayed with Wellborn players since then.

“It’s always in the back of our minds when we’re working out or running through plays,” senior Landon Machristie said. “We’ve been to the second round for the past few years, and we just haven’t gotten over that hump. This year, we’re working to get over that hump. I think we have the team to do it this year.”

The loss to Fyffe hit Machristie a little harder than anyone else. In the final minutes of the game, Wellborn was inside the 10-yard line with a chance to tie the game when Machristie threw an interception that led to Fyffe scoring again and icing the win.

“I saw Corri (Tignor) wide open, and I just threw it behind him,” he said. “Personally, that’s always been in the back of my head as motivation to get better this offseason. I mean, Corri had the winning touchdown caught, and I blew it for him, so I know he’s upset about it.”

Tignor has let the play go and moved on, saying everyone makes mistakes, but this season brings a different type of demeanor than apologies.

Wellborn brings back its notable wing-T offense, but the spotlight will be on the defense, which returns eight starters.

“Ever since coach (Jeff) Smith has been here and since I’ve been in elementary school watching all of our games, I feel like this year is going to be the best defense that Wellborn has had in the past 20 or so years,” Machristie said. “I’m telling you, we have the athletes, the speed, the physicality, the coaches and everything we need set up for it. We have a dominant defensive squad.”

Offensively, Machristie, who is also a star linebacker, will be back under center for the second straight season. In the backfield, Jordan Montgomery will take over at wingback, three-year starter Kevin Mixon will move to tailback and D.J. Rhoden will be at fullback for his second season.

The offensive line, which had one returning starter last year, will have five players returning that have started at least one game each. In total, Wellborn returns nine starters.

“We’re like brothers,” senior Jeremiah Farmer said. “We’re closer this year than we have been before. We know what drives us and we’re focused.”

And, although it’s known that Wellborn is going to ground-and-pound the ball, there were also glimpses of more of a passing game last year. The Panthers also went 13-4 in 7-on-7 camps this summer.

“I hope we do. These 7-on-7 camps that we went to this summer, we had a lot of success on what we do,” Tignor said. “We had a really good record. If we can just take that on the field on Friday nights then we’ll be good.”

Since Smith took over as the head coach, Wellborn has made the playoffs the past five seasons, but the team hasn’t been to the quarterfinals since its semifinal run in 1995. The coach said the first thing the Panthers need to do to get there is focus more.

“We’re always doing the same things that we’ve always done. Our workouts and practice aren’t going to change,” he said. “We just have to worry about doing the little things a little more extra. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.