As a result, Adairsville head coach Eric Bishop wanted to schedule quality competition early in the season to prepare.
Class AAAA Ridgeland will be the first higher classification team on the docket as the Tigers face the Panthers today in Tiger Valley.
“It’s kind of one thing we talked about last year walking off the field at White County. We felt like we have to try to find that playoff caliber competition and play it early,” Bishop said. “Everyone wants to win, but getting in that atmosphere and competing and being in that playoff-type situation early in the year will pay off for us in the long run, whether we win or lose.”
Ridgeland went 3-7 in 2013, but battled through injuries to make the region playoffs in 7B-AAAA. The Panthers went 13-2 in 2012 and made the Class AAAA state championship. They will be one of the primary competitors in Region 7 this season.
Unlike Adairsville, Ridgeland loses key starters at the skill positions but has experience returning along the offensive and defensive lines.
“They lost a couple of key individuals from last year’s team, but they do return a lot of kids,” Bishop said of Ridgeland. “Even if they weren’t starters, they got a lot of playing time late in the year is what we’ve learned. While they kind of advertise they’re young, and they are in some spots, they definitely are experienced. They play like it as well. They play hard and play fast.”
The speed comes from junior Jerome Morgan and freshman Markeith Montgomery at wingback.
“A lot of speed, they have two kids who are very, very fast,” Bishop said. “It doesn’t take you long watching film to take note of those two.”
The workhorse in the backfield is Caderius Word, who ran for 733 yards and nine touchdowns last year and was named second-team all region.
In addition to where experience is returning, Adairsville also differs from Ridgeland schematically.
“We’re kind of polar opposites in two ways — they return a lot of guys up front on the O and D line. We don’t. We have a lot of new guys at those positions. Not only that, but they’re kind of the other end of the spectrum in that they’re in the Wing-T offensively and we’re kind of spread option, so it’s going to be interesting to see how each team handles being the polar opposite,” Bishop said. “We have to sit here and not think spread offense and not think what we thought the whole preseason against one another or what we did against Cass last week. I think, early in the ballgame, there’s going to be some adjustments that our kids are going to have to make from a mentality standpoint.”
Ridgeland also has a strong defense, in particular the team’s linebacking corps, which features Division I recruit Ian Hayes. Hayes was an all-region and all-state selection a year ago, and was the Walker County Co-Defensive Player of the Year after recording 131 tackles, 18 for losses, to go with two sacks, an interception and two blocked kicks.
However, Adairsville feels strongly about its own linebackers after its scrimmage with Cass last week.
“I tell you, I’m still bragging on those linebackers and [defensive backs] and we we’re trying to get 11 hats to the football — playing fast, being physical,” Bishop said. “Being physical is something we don’t have to talk very much about with this defense because they just do it. That’s a good thing. More often than not, we have to throttle them back rather than try to get their motor going.”
One question mark Bishop still has after his team’s scrimmage is along the inexperienced offensive and defensive lines, but Bishop liked what he saw against Cass.
“We were pleased, especially with the defensive line and the progress they have made. Offensively, we only got one drive with our starting offensive line because of two minor injuries we had to deal with,” Bishop said. “We really only had one drive with our first offensive line and that was the first drive of the game, a 12-play drive that ultimately ended in a touchdown. We do feel good about that, but you just don’t know if we would have gotten more reps or gotten more film.
“We still want to see what that group of linemen are going to do when they have to stand in there and go toe-to-toe for 48 minutes. That’s still something we’ve got to find out for ourselves.”
Spotting areas for improvement will be one of the primary objectives for Adairsville against Ridgeland in the non-region contest.
“Obviously, we want to come out of there with a win. I don’t care how we do it,” Bishop said. “If we get a lead early and don’t let it go or we keep it close and win it late, that part doesn’t matter as long as we’re doing what we do and doing it well.”