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Brian Tannehill Elmore County quarterback Brody Ward (17) attempts to complete a pass to his wide receiver against Talladega.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth piece in a series of six articles looking at the top players for each area football team.

Elmore County is preparing to play its first-ever season in Class 5A and coming off a season in which a lack of depth became an issue, the Panthers know it will not be an easy transition. Coach Jordan Cantrell is working with some extra numbers this year and some of the new faces has allowed other returning players to take on more fitting roles to provide some more depth on both sides of the ball.

Brody Ward, senior athlete

Ward spent most of last season playing quarterback and while he has still taken some snaps during practice, he is further down the depth chart this year which will allow him to take on other roles. Ward will move into a starting role as a linebacker and will still see some time in the backfield, often as a lead blocker.

“He has become a really physical football player,” Cantrell said. “He’s going to play outside backer and he’s worked a lot at fullback. He’s willing to do anything the team needs to be successful. We need that there.”

Nate Jones, senior fullback

Jones played a true fullback role in Elmore County’s offense last season, a rare sight in modern high school football. The Panthers used him as a lead blocker but they also were not afraid to put the ball in Jones’ hands in short-yardage situations. Jones is expected to use both of those skills this season while playing in multiple positions.

“He is working some fullback and he’s worked some offensive line too,” Cantrell said. “We have moved him to guard and pulled him back to fullback. It’s good to have a guy like that can play in multiple positions. He’s a bigger guy but he is very athletic too.”

Coby Mann, senior lineman

After playing center in Cantrell’s first year with the Panthers, Mann moved to the strong guard position last season but he is now set to make the move back to the middle of the line. Cantrell expects Mann to be the anchor of the offensive line.

“We have really needed him there,” Cantrell said. “He’s good at making the calls there. It’s good to have a leader up front that can coach guys up there. He’s worked hard. He’s stronger and he can move a little bit better.”

Cole Boothe, senior defensive end

Boothe is expected to be another player to make an impact at different positions this season. On the offensive end, he will move from the backfield to fill the tight end vacancy for the Panthers but his bigger impact is likely going to come from the defensive side. After playing as an inside linebacker as a junior, Boothe will move up to the line of scrimmage and try to contain the edge as a defensive end.

“We do need him as a strong side end to really wreak some havoc,” Cantrell said. “He has come into that role big time. He has to be physical there and he’s really upped his strength. You get a lot of action right there. He’s going to have to be a tough one and we really feel like he can do that.”

Payton Stephenson, sophomore athlete and Sean Darnell, junior athlete

It’s still unclear who will take the majority of snaps at quarterback for the Panthers this season but it is expected to be one of these two newcomers. Stephenson has taken a bulk of the snaps with the ones at practice and Cantrell said he has earned that spot.

“He is working hard,” Cantrell said. “Payton can run and throw. He can extend the play and he can make some things happen. He loves to study the game and loves to practice. He’s still a young guy so that’s really cool to have a guy like that we consider a leader as a 10th-grader.”

Darnell is also taking snaps at quarterback but no matter who starts under center, both players are expecting to take on large roles in the backfield and should see plenty of touches on the offensive side.

“They just work really good together in the backfield,” Cantrell said. “Either of them can play multiple positions on the field. They can do a lot so there are a lot of different things we can do with them.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.