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Winterboro offensive line remains work in progress after losing four starters

Winterboro #9 Jake Travis 1 web tw.jpg

Winterboro QB Jake Travis returns for his senior season in 2021.

As he's done all spring long, rising senior Troy McKinney didn't waste a chance to leave an impression. On May 13, McKinney caught one of four Ranburne interceptions, and he sprinted 60 yards to return the pick for a touchdown in Winterboro's 18-8 win.

McKinney wasn't timed on the play, but the reigning state champion (200-meter dash and long jump) can clear that distance in less than 5.5 seconds on the track. That speed is one reason Winterboro coach Skylar Mansfield expects to line the running back up out wide this year alongside, or opposite of, receiver Chance Dandridge.

"Perimeter-wise, I think we are really, really good, and we can compete with anybody on the perimeter," Mansfield said. "So we just got to find that offensive line so we can be solid."

Therein lies the challenge for the Bulldogs as rising junior Kyler Griffin is the only returning starter on the line. Griffin will kick out from guard to tackle while fellow junior-to-be Brayden Waites takes over at center in place of Dawson Mosley, who is actually shifting out to play tight end.

"He really gives us an opportunity to give defenses problems because he is so athletic," Mansfield said.

The remaining three spots on the line will likely go to rising ninth-graders, with Matthew Haynes, Payton Hutton, KhTyler Keith, and Kadan Ponder all distinguishing themselves in the spring.

"They definitely look young," Mansfield said. "But I'm really excited because we got some years to build with those guys. We will have them for a couple of years, and we can develop them in the weight room and get them conditioned, and they can be a part of this system for the next four years."

While size will come with time, the Winterboro coach said his immediate focus revolves around the mental side of football. His chief concerns being how to recognize a defense, where to position themselves on certain plays, and the proper foot technique.

"The guys are really, really smart," Mansfield said. "A bunch of those guys take AP courses so they will be a great group to start with the mental development."

While the line's progression will likely take center stage in fall camp, it's hardly the only question facing a Bulldog team that finished the season 9-2 with a loss in the second round of the playoffs last season.

The biggest question this offseason poses is how Winterboro will replace senior Brody Hamm. From a production standpoint, Hamm was the leader on the defensive side of the ball from the linebacker position. He was also consistently a top-two option at running back and served as the field goal kicker.

In the playoffs, Winterboro also asked Hamm to step into a wildcat quarterback role for a majority of the snaps, but the biggest thing the senior took with him was his leadership.

"We're still developing guys, but we've got about eight guys that could assume the role of being that kind of leader," Mansfield said. "Yeah, we're going to miss Brody because of what Brody could provide, but talent-wise we should still be fine. We did play some young guys last year that really embrace the role of stepping up to be a leader. We also have about eight or nine seniors."

While none of those guys have taken on the vocal leadership role that Hamm held last season, the Bulldogs have more clarity for who might take over some of his roles on the field.

Running back Jashalin James will once again lead the backfield. Mansfield said he's lost 20 pounds but looks bigger somehow. He will split running back carries with McKinney.

Fellow senior-to-be Jake Travis is back under center, and Mansfield said he might be the second-fastest guy on the team.

"We will really have to convince him that carrying the ball is one of the best options for his decision making to open up the pass game and our running backs," the Winterboro coach said.

On the defensive side of the ball, keep an eye on linebacker Dequarious Truss. He recorded 14 tackles in the win over Ranburne. 

Of course, McKinney's likely move to the secondary after recording 13 sacks while playing defensive line last year, and the continued dominance of Dandrige at cornerback should provide anchors the Bulldogs can build their defense around.

"Chance embraces challenges," Mansfield said. "He wants people to throw the ball, and offensively Chance embraces challenges by going to get the deep ball. Most of the time, Chance just wants the ball in his hands."

Sports Writer Tyler Waldrep: 256-299-2133. On Twitter: @tylerwaldrep