Woodland set to open against Southeast Whitfield at home

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Friday will mark the beginning of the regular season for three football teams in Bartow County, and the only one of those to be playing at home will be Woodland, which hosts Southeast Whitfield.

The Wildcats will look to replicate their season-opening, 31-22 win over the Raiders last season. Although Woodland would probably prefer not to have to sit through a similar lightning delay, it's safe to say the Wildcats would suffer through the inconvenience again if it meant starting the season with a victory.

Even though Woodland's roster composition will look substantially different this year with the departure of a massive senior class, Wildcats head coach Tony Plott is still excited for what his team will bring to the table Friday.

“The kids have been working hard this summer,” he said. “We’re excited to play in front of our fans, our parents, all the people that supported us. It’s really important to us to always put on a good show.”

Southeast Whitfield will enter the 2019 season off a 3-7 campaign. The Raiders defeated Murray County and Coahulla Creek in consecutive weeks after last year's loss to the Wildcats. Their only other victory came against Gilmer.

Returning for Southeast Whitfield will be quarterback Adam Sowder, who scored the starters' only touchdown in a 14-7 win over Armuchee in a preseason tilt, and running back Henry Vassel. Overall, the Raiders certainly bring back more experience than the Wildcats, who have roughly half as many seniors as their opponent.

"I think they have quite a bit returning," Plott said of Southeast Whitfield. "... I expect them to be the same as they've been in the past. They're going to be big on the offensive line, and I expect them to be physical. They do a good job of coaching, and they have a good scheme that they do. The kids believe in it, and they play hard. They're a good football team."

Plott believes Woodland can be a good team, as well. To get to that level, though, the Wildcats will need to make significant strides after a sloppy preseason scrimmage last week at Adairsville.

The defense looked the better of the two units, as the linemen blew up several plays. Plott commended the play of linebacker Bryce Shedd and defensive back Jaden Johnson, while acknowledging that his team still needs to improve on that side of the ball.

"We still have issues there also," Plott said. "As well as our front four played, we still have some issues about getting aligned the right way and keying our reads. ... [The Tigers] had an opportunity to score more than what they did. We got a little fortunate some times."

Also among the players Plott praised was junior quarterback Johnathan Thomas, who got his first start at the position in a fall varsity atmosphere.

"I thought Johnathan Thomas did a great job of just doing what we asked him to do, which was manage the game and do what we're supposed to do," Plott said. "We had a limited offense by design, and he did what we were asking him to do. I thought he did well."

However, the offense as a whole was underwhelming. Aside from a trio of long touchdown runs — one each from Demarcus Williams, Asa James and Christian Vera — Woodland's starters typically went three and out.

Between the short drives that ended in punts and the quick-strike touchdowns, a Wildcats team predicated on controlling the ball and the clock ran a total of 35 plays through their first possession of the fourth quarter.

That barely cut it last Friday in a 21-14 win, and it certainly isn't a sustainable model for Woodland. Getting better at what the Wildcats should do best is what Plott hopes to see this week.

"I think the key for us is we have to continue to improve," he said. "We have to get where we can sustain drives. We can't live and die by the big plays. We've got to be able to control the clock, control the game. We have to be able to do those things to be successful. I was disappointed we didn't do that Friday night.

"[Adairsville head coach] Eric [Bishop] and his coaches are a great coaching staff. They have those kids well prepared, and they play hard for them. I know they were a good football team, but we still need to be able to get first downs. That's what I was really disappointed in. As long as we keep working and getting better at that, all I can ask for is us to keep improving."