PORTAL - After three straight playoff runs from 2004-06, Portal football has fallen on hard times.
The Panthers have managed just one win in each of the past three seasons, but a new year brings with it a new coach, a new offense, and – most importantly – new opportunity.
Cherard Freeman takes the reins this season after spending time as both the offensive and defensive coordinator for the Panthers. He has installed some new schemes, but is adamant that the biggest changes that Portal can make might just be the simplest ones.
“We know that we have talent,” said Freeman. “Despite our recent record, this team has been in a lot of ballgames. Our guys know that a couple of plays here or there can make the difference. I think that has inspired us to focus and go out and work a little harder to get over that hump.”
One of the biggest struggles for Portal in 2009 was the offense.
Although the Panthers could move the ball a bit, lack of possession time and frequent stalls deep in opponent territory often dealt crucial blows late in winnable games.
This season Freeman has installed a triple option attack that he hopes will chew up clock and provide the power necessary to finish off drives.
Of course, the option requires plenty of mental discipline and can take awhile to master.
Junior Hunter Oglesby assumes the task of commanding the attack from his quarterback position and will be depended on to make all of the right reads and pitches.
Senior running back Devon Spells figures to help Oglesby by serving as a pounding B-back capable of handling lots of carries and earning tough yards up the middle.
“It’s definitely a little new to me,” said Spells. “I’ve played fullback before, but I have never started before and this is a totally new system. I think that everyone is adjusting to it pretty well. It’s a little tough to learn everything, but we keep improving every day and I’m sure that we’ll improve each week during the season.”
Often overlooked in the offensive equation is line play.
Senior Nolan Clark anchors a line that must now transition from a straight ahead blocking scheme to one that must move laterally and get downfield.
“It’s a change, for sure,” said Clark. “There are some things you do in this offense that we’ve never done before. It can be hard to look at the guy right across from you and leave him since you aren’t supposed to block him. I think we’re all learning though.”
As a senior, Clark knows that much of the burden of changing the culture at Portal rests on the shoulders of him and his classmates.
“We all try to be good leaders,” said Clark. “I remember the older guys that helped me when I was new. I think that when the older guys do things right and get everyone on the right track, the younger guys can improve quicker and start to help the team faster.”
This season will definitely be a test for the Panthers.
Region realignment has Portal shifting from the East division of Region 3-A to the West, and three of last season’s state playoff participants out of the region will now be a part of the Panthers’ sub-region schedule.
“We know that we have a lot of work to do,” said Freeman. “Seeing our guys in the scrimmage definitely eased my mind a little. We saw guys playing hard and doing what they were supposed to do on every play. We know that the season will always be tough, but we’re doing what we have to do to get better.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.