10 things to ask about WSN's season

Published 8:34 am Wednesday, August 9, 2006

By BY BRUCE HIXON – sports editor
W.S. Neal's quest to get back to the state football playoffs after a two-year absence could depend on how well it handles these 10 items.
1. Game of the Season: It would be easy to say the Oct. 27 game at T.R. Miller just because it is T.R. Miller. However, this could be the game that determines whether or not the Blue Eagles get in or stay home for the postseason. That was the case last season when W.S. Neal came up short against the Tigers.
2. Trap game: The Sept. 29 non-region game at Opp could be interesting. If there is one opposing coach on the Blue Eagles' schedule who gears his season towards the clash with W.S. Neal other than T.R. Miller skipper Jamie Riggs, it is Opp coach Jack Whigham. Of course, Whigham was an assistant coach with T.R. Miller for 16 seasons before he took the Opp head job last spring.
3. Will W.S. Neal take advantage of a favorable schedule? That remains to be seen, but last season the Blue Eagles played eight teams that finished the season .500 or better. That included three teams (Eufaula, Pike County and Southern Choctaw), which finished the regular season unbeaten. This season W.S. Neal is slated to play only four teams (Thomasville, T.R. Miller, Jackson and Southside-Selma), which were .500 or better last season.
4. Hold your breath if starting left tackle Jared Cooper or quarterback Marquis Barksdale go down.
It is impossible to place one above the other in importance. Cooper is the only returning starter on the offensive line. Center Michael Boyd played a couple of games last season on the line, but they were at tackle. The rest of the line has no varsity experience. The same is true at quarterback where sophomore Taylor Cash's playing time has consisted of mop-up duty and B team.
5. Will special teams play be improved? Lack of special teams execution played a key role in three of W.S. Neal's six losses last season. The return of senior Justin Smith, who punted two seasons ago, should aid that area. Placekicking could be a key area, as potential kickers Smith, Thomas Emmons and Jamar Travis have never kicked at the varsity level before. W.S. Neal will also have a new snapper with Michael Boyd and Danny Warrick the top possibilities.
6. Can W.S. Neal find a capable wideout to go with Jonathan Alexander? Alexander figures to be one of the top wide receivers in Class 4A Region 1, but the rest of the W.S. Neal receiving corps is mostly unproven. Tight end Justin Howard, who caught nine balls for 182 yards last season, is the most experienced threat. None of W.S. Neal's other projected receivers have caught a varsity pass.
7. What part will be the strongest for the Blue Eagles on the defensive side of the ball? It could be the defensive line where W.S. Neal returns tackle Jamar Travis and ends Jeremy Brazile and Justin Howard. The other end, Derrick Fantroy, also saw some varsity reps last season.
8. Which area is the most unproven? As earlier mention, Cooper is the only returning starter on the offensive line at left tackle. Boyd is making the switch from tackle to center. The remaining spots will potentially be filled by Adam York at left guard, Thomas Emmons at right guard and Aaron Lambert at right tackle. This line may not be as big as some of W.S. Neal's recent lines, but could be quicker.
9. Who will carry the ball? While Barksdale is actually W.S. Neal's returning rusher from a year ago with 150 yards, running is not his top priority. The return of Justin Smith, who sat out last season, should be a big plus along with the addition of sophomore Louis Ray Nelson. Nate Sheffield and Wayne Mitchell got the most varsity reps among the returning running backs last season.
10. What is the biggest plus headed into the season? It could be the second year for head coach Blaine Hathcock. When Hathcock took over last season, he was the program's third head coach in four seasons. The rest of the varsity staff has also pretty much stayed intact with assistants Kevin Jordan, Coy Campbell and Robbie Grace all back.