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Bobcats intent on turning close losses into wins in 2017

Whether it was a two-point loss to eventual region champion Lamar County, a one-possession game against region runner-up Sheffield or just a competitive half of football against the likes of Sulligent and Red Bay, Phil Campbell’s 2016 football season was filled with close calls, one almost-win after another.

On the one hand, head coach Ryan Swinney looks at those games and sees progress for a program that has come a long way since going 0-10 in 2013, his first season. On the other hand, every one of those almost-wins was ultimately a loss, and Swinney has had about enough of those—eight, to be exact, in 2016, a season in which the battle-tested Bobcats were supposed to take the next step following back-to-back playoff berths the two previous years.

“Last year, we came in with high expectations. I sure did,” Swinney said last week. “Like I told the kids, I’m the eternal optimist, but I really was last year. We had a lot of experience back and some good athletes, too. Every week, every game we played was competitive, but we just couldn’t get over that hump.

“I don’t know what the problem was or what the answer was. We played a tough schedule, and that goes along with it, but it was frustrating.”

The trouble started in the Class 2A, Region 8 opener, when Phil Campbell fell into a big early hole at Lamar County and couldn’t quite climb out, falling 21-19. The following week found the Bobcats attempting a two-point conversion that would have given them a fourth-quarter lead over Sheffield, but the ultra-talented Bulldogs held on for a 35-27 win. Then came the second-half collapse against Sulligent, a late defensive letdown against Mars Hill, a six-point loss at Hatton and an 11th consecutive defeat at the hands of rival Red Bay.

By season’s end, Phil Campbell had failed to win a game in region play and was just 2-8 overall. The high hopes of August were long gone, leaving behind a sense of unfulfilled potential and forcing an eternal optimist like Swinney to squint his eyes in search of a silver lining.

“To be that close to the region champion, just two points, and to be within eight points of the region runner-up…it was frustrating,” Swinney said. “But, at the same time, it was good to know we had a chance to win very game we played. A few years ago, there were teams we knew we wouldn’t compete with. Last year, that wasn’t the case.”

Now, with spring drills in the rearview mirror and the 2017 season opener against Tharptown barely eleven weeks away, the Bobcats are reloading for another run. Twelve seniors graduated in May, including key contributors Colby Baker, Austin Riner, Nick Swinney, Malique Nalls and Trey Nalls. Recurring injury problems have placed the career of senior stalwart and program pillar Joe Hardy in jeopardy, but the cupboard is hardly bare; veteran quarterback Peyton Thomas is back to lead an even larger senior class that also includes tight end/linebacker Brody Nix, running back/safety Seth Brindley, linemen Chase Hutchens and Dustin Hamby, receiver Hunter Hutcheson and fullback/defensive end Jason Mansell.

Priority number one for Swinney and his players if they hope to get back to the postseason after a one-year absence is to find a way to start turning some of those almost-wins into actual ones.

“Maybe being that close will light a fire under these guys,” he said. “We know we’ve been there with a chance to win these ball games; we’ve just gotta make the plays to do it. We’re still gonna have a lot of experience. A lot of these guys have been there and done that. But we’re gonna have to win those kind of games, because we’re not gonna blow people out. The teams we play are too good. We’re gonna have to make plays to win close games. That’s a hurdle we’ve gotta get over.

“We weren’t able to do that last year, and that falls on me. We can’t be satisfied with playing close. We’ve gotta find a way to win.”

That starts with keeping Thomas healthy. The 6’0, 190-pound dual threat threw for more than 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns last season while adding another 400-plus yards and seven scores on the ground.

“Even with the guys we had last year, it all went through Peyton,” Swinney said. “As the year went on and we got beat up a little bit, by the end of the season he was not only our quarterback but probably our best running back, too. Peyton can obviously throw the ball, but he’s a big, strong kid, and he’s not a bad runner. He may not have that breakaway speed for those big runs, but he’s a physical guy who runs hard.

“Peyton’s gonna have to shoulder a whole lot of the offense—not just in the passing game, but in the running game, too. He runs the option well. He knows what he’s doing.”

Thomas has thrown a total of 30 touchdown passes over the past two seasons, but this year he’ll be breaking in an almost entirely new group of players at the skill positions. Brindley is taking over Baker’s responsibilities as a running back/slot back, with Mansell—who didn’t play last season but looked good this spring—replacing Trey Nalls at fullback. The physical, athletic Nix returns at tight end, but there’s not a ton of varsity experience at the receiver spots.

Hutcheson, who missed spring practice after sustaining a knee injury in the 2016 season finale at Hackleburg, and fellow seniors Sam Pierce and Daniel Smith will be asked to step up, along with sophomores Brandon Baker (who caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Thomas in the spring game against Winston County) and Ben Williams (who missed spring practice while recovering from a knee injury he sustained during basketball season).

“All of our skill positions were different this spring, other than quarterback,” Swinney said. “We’ve got some kids who didn’t get as much playing time last year that are gonna have to play a lot this year. The one good thing about having some guys out this spring was, it gave us a chance to build some depth.

“Seth ran the ball well. Jason is a big strong kid with a lot of ability. He’s got some upside, if he’ll stick with it and work. Riner was our deep threat last year. I hope we develop that this year.”

There is some experience up front on offense, where Hutchens (right tackle), Hamby (center) and fellow senior Caleb Hagood (left tackle) all return, along with junior left guard Gage Cook. Sophomore Caleb Solas stepped in at right guard during the spring and also got reps at defensive tackle. Another sophomore, Imer Ordonez, split time with Mansell at fullback and also figures into the rotation at defensive end along with Mansell and Hutchens. Cook and Nix are both back to anchor what should be a solid linebacker corps.

Swinney said last week that he has challenged veterans like Thomas and Nix to step up and take a more active role when it comes to vocal leadership in 2017.

“We need those guys to step up and lead, and I think they will,” Swinney said. “We had some good, talented seniors last year, guys I would take back in a heartbeat. They were as talented as all get-out, but they were quiet. Sometimes the guys get tired of hearing me scream and holler. In those situations, you need somebody to step up and say something.”

Phil Campbell played Winston County in a spring game on May 19 and came away with a 14-6 win. The Bobcats were pitching a shutout until Winston County found the end zone in the final half-minute of the game.

“We gave up a few plays we shouldn’t have,” Swinney said, “but I think defensively we’re gonna be all right. We did lose several guys on that side of the ball, but a lot of these guys played a lot on defense last year.

“Overall, I was pleased. We’ve got a lot of new faces, especially at the skill positions, but we had some guys who stepped in and did a pretty good job. Obviously, with only seven full days of practice, there were a lot of mistakes, but overall I was pleasantly surprised.”

The Bobcats will officially open summer workouts on June 12, with an eye toward fall practice starting on August 7. Swinney’s fifth season as head coach at his alma mater will kick off on August 25 at Tharptown.

“It’s hard to believe,” he said. “I enjoy it. I really would like to have one of those years where we’re the team to beat. I don’t know if it’s gonna happen or not, but we’ll keep plugging along and do the best we can for as long as we can, and let the cards fall where they may.

“I’m excited. This spring, I was pleasantly surprised with the way our guys played. During those two weeks of practice, their attitude was great. They worked hard, they pushed each other and they had great attitudes. That goes a long way.”

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