Preview: Stephens County Indians

Last season Travis Noland took over a Stephens County program that was accustomed to winning. Not much changed under the direction of the new coach as far as wins and losses. The Indians, a perennial playoff contender in Region 8-AAA, again reached the postseason, notching 11 wins and a region title before falling to eventual state champion Peach County, 56-42, in the quarterfinals.

But the style employed by Noland and the 2005 Indians was vastly different than the power-running, wing-T offense that the fans in Toccoa had seen in past years.

Noland installed a more balanced scheme, featuring a mix of I-formation and multiple receiver shotgun sets. Fans might have been skittish about the North Carolina coach tinkering with the formula they knew produced results, but it didn't take long for Noland to win them over.

The Indians passed for nearly 2,000 yards, the most in school history, en route to racking up 34.2 points per game in 2005. But the ground game was far from forgotten.

Led by Tauren Poole's 1,350 yards and 24 touchdowns, as well as Deshawn Scott's 884 yards and 14 touchdowns, Stephens County fielded too many weapons for most teams to contend with. The challenge for Noland this season isn't in making believers out of his players or the fans, it's finding replacements for most of those weapons as well as a graduation-depleted offensive line, defensive line and secondary.

Poole (5-11, 195; Jr.) and Scott (5-8, 185; Sr.) return to the Indians' backfield this year and will be two of the most feared backs in Region 8-AAA. Last season the duo rotated at tailback, but look for Noland to put the playmakers on the field together more this fall. Scott saw some action at fullback last year, including extensive action against Peach County when he caught a 14-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield, and could be a starter there this season.

Quarterback Will Cox, who helmed the Stephens County attack last fall has graduated, as have his favorite receivers, Deshawn Jones, Deon Jones and Lucas Harvey. The trio hauled in 45 receptions for over 1,000 yards last season, including 13 of Cox's 23 touchdown passes. Ethan Martin (6-1 170; Jr.) is expected to assume the quarterback duties after serving as the back up and learning the offense last season. Martin, who has led Stephens County's baseball team in home runs each of the last two seasons, is athletic and possesses a strong right arm.

The two biggest question marks entering the 2006 season involve who will inherit the vacated roles at receiver and offensive line. Other than Poole and Scott, only one player returns who caught a pass in 2005. Josh Kinney, a sure-handed senior, could see action, and William Sheeler, who has experience at tailback, brings some needed speed and athleticism to the position. Other candidates include sophomore Bryan Whitfield, senior Broderique Dixon, junior Clay Keith and freshman Kadaryl Burtch, though Noland has said he prefers to let incoming freshman develop through a season of 9th grade and JV games before moving them up to varsity. Center Jay Ivester (6-2, 245; Sr.) returns to anchor the line. The Indians will look for several first-time starters to step up and join him, including junior Will Gearhart and senior Robbie Smith, among others.

Noland's offense made for compelling headlines last season, but it didn't overshadow the accomplishments of the Stephens County defense. The Indians allowed only 16 points in seven Region 8-AAA contests while holding opponents to less than 130 yards of total offense per game.

Linebacker figures to be the strength of the Indian defense again in 2006. Defensive coordinator Jim Keith must find a replacement for middle linebacker Levi Westbrook, but Scott and Keaton Thompson (6-2, 195; Sr.) are three-year starter and each racked up over 100 tackles last season. M.L. Dooley provided spells for the starters last fall and is expected to inherit the middle linebacker position this year. Matt Oliver also received ample playing time last season as a junior and could step in to a starting role at linebacker or safety.

The entire starting defensive line from last season has graduated, and just as on the offensive side of the ball, big bodies will be at a premium for Stephens County. Defensive end Joe Pittman (6-2, 205; Sr.) is the most experienced returning lineman and is a relentless pass rusher. With some added bulk, Matt Cobb could be able to step in and assume the duties at the other end position. Interior line candidates include Ivester and Charles Rambo, among others.

Dixon (5-10, 165; Sr.) started much of last season at cornerback and Poole has some experience at safety, but the rest of the secondary is gone. Sheeler could emerge at one cornerback, while Keith, sophomore Cody Martin and Whitfield will get opportunities in the defensive backfield.

Junior James Seib returns as the team's placekicker after a solid season last year. Ethan Martin will most likely assume the punting duties vacated by Cox, and Noland must find a kick-off specialist to replace Harvey.

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