The offensive numbers for the Ridgeland Panthers in 2012 were simply too large to ignore. The Panthers rushed for more than 5,000 yards, a key factor in their 13-2 record and appearance in the Class AAAA state championship game. They scored 40 points or more 10 times and only twice – in the semifinals and the finals – were they held below 35.
The vast majority of that production will graduate next weekend, including top two rushers Darrell Bridges (nearly 2,400 yards) and Vonn Bell (1,100). Between them they accounted for 61 total touchdowns.
“I don’t know that you can ever replace them. When you look at their production numbers they’re gaudy, x-boxish,” Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said. “They had incredible numbers offensively and deefensively, but more than that was the attitude they brought to the field. They brought those intangibles to each huddle.”
The intangibles, he said, were the difference between the 2012 team and those that came before it.
“From top to bottom I’m not sure that was the best team we’ve ever had, athletically, but they were the best team we’ve had,” Mariakis said. “Everybody understood that we had one goal.”
Bell, who is headed to Ohio State, and Bridges were part of a group of 15 seniors, a smallish class that had an outsized impact.
With all that, it’s easy to expect a dropoff in 2013. Mariakis understands that thinking, but he said the expecations really haven’t changed.
“We’re excited about this group,” he said. “We’re excited about the youth we have because it’s athletic. It’s a matter of how quickly they grow up. The thing is, everybody understands what it takes to win.”
Here’s another number – 135. That’s how many players the Panthers dressed out for spring practice. Mariakis said he there were 39 in the program when he took the job nine years ago.
“It’s a good thing we had a good year last year,” he said. “We had to spend $15,000 on equipment to outfit all of them. It’s a good exciting group.”
RB Noah Cooper, who will be a senior this fall, is the leading returning rusher and figures to be the featured back, with more than 800 yards and 10 TDs last year. Finding complementary skilled players was a key point of emphasis for the Panthers during spring drills. Mariakis said it was important for the team to develop offensive guards to fit the spread scheme that calls for pulling guards.
“Guards are vital,” he said. “We’ve got to have athletic guards that can move and run and make plays in space.”
Defensively, LB DeAngelo Smith (133 total tackles) is the leading returning tackler. DB Dillon Peterman returns and likely will take over Bell’s spot at safety. Peterman led the team with five interceptions in 2012 to go with 71 total tackles.
2012 record: 13-2, 5-0 Region 7-AAAA Division B, lost in state finals to Sandy Creek.
Starters returning: 5 offense; 6 defense
Key players lost: DB Vonn Bell, RB Darrell Bridges, OL Gannon Hampton, OL Dustin Davis, QB Trevor Long, LB Daniel Johnson
Key players returning: DB Dillon Peterman, RB Noah Cooper, LB DeAngelo Smith, TE/DE Jermaine Conyers, OL P.J. Gardner, OL Josh Gates
Schedule: Aug. 30 Calhoun, Sept. 13 at River Ridge, Sept. 20 at Cedartown, Sept. 27 Pickens, Oct. 4 at Dalton, Sept. 11 Southeast Whitfield, Oct. 18 Northwest Whitfield, Oct. 25 at LaFayette, Nov. 1 Hertigate-Catoosa, Nov. 8 Region play-in game.
Outlook: After taking a big step forward for the best season in school history, Ridgeland figures to take a step back after the graduation of players who accounted for 80 percent of the offensive yards in 2012. of the four semifinal teams in 2012, they seem to have the most questions.