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File / Tallapoosa Publishers TJ Jackson (94) and Jeremy Thompson (23) will be leaders for a strong Stanhope defense this season.

All eyes were on Opelika during Week 8 last season as Stanhope Elmore was the final undefeated team in Class 6A Region 3 and needed one more victory to clinch its first region title since 2004. However, the Mustangs came up short with what coach Brian Bradford called their worst performance of the season and they saw the region and a home playoff game slip through their hands.

Stanhope enters the 2019 season with high hopes of another shot at the region championship. The Mustangs will have to go through Wetumpka and Opelika again but after a strong offseason, the team is ready for the challenge.

“It’s all about focusing on the little things,” Stanhope wide receiver Conner Bradford said.

“Everyone is playing for each other instead of themselves so you can tell. It’s definitely different.”

Stanhope still finished in a three-way tie on top of the region last season but the tiebreaker came down to the teams’ non-region play. The Mustangs lost three games outside of region play by a total of 15 points and they are looking to get revenge in those games.

“That little rivalry we have in this area with Prattville and Wetumpka, we’re always going to get each other’s best,” coach Bradford said. “I think we played a lot better in both of those games than some of the other ones we lost. We played some other teams we didn’t think were good enough to beat us because we didn’t have the mental focus. That’s on me because all games are important and we need to want to win them all.”

The Mustangs will have to be up for the challenge quickly as they have four of their first five games on the road, including two region games. Bradford knows it is going to be a challenge but the coaching staff is embracing the tough stretch and believes the Mustangs can steal a few wins along the way.

“We’ve talked about it but we have the mindset that we have to take it one game at a time,” Bradford said. “Whether we’re playing at home or on the road, we don’t care. We’ll play on the street. But I like going on the road sometimes, it’s about seeing something different and it’s always fun to beat someone on their own field.”

The stage will be even bigger for first-year starting quarterback Jalen Walker. However, Walker already has plenty of experience and he has gotten some help from his fellow seniors to prepare for the offensive spotlight.

“Over the summer, we were always getting after it together,” Conner Bradford said. “Throwing to each other and running routes, just building that chemistry with each other — Jalen’s great. He always knows what to do and he’s always making the right reads and right throws.”

The passing attack will also get help from Tyler Wilson, who moves from tight end to receiver, and first-year player Dalton Smith. Tray Duncan returns in the backfield as the starting running back and will get help from Andrew Rines and Adrian Laskey.

“We started off the year more run than pass but we ended with more passing than running for probably the first time in my career,” coach Bradford said. “This year, we’ve been very balanced in every one of our practices and we’ve been closer to 50/50.”

The Mustangs will be relying a lot on its new offensive line which returns just one starter. Joel Hughes moves from guard to center and will be joined by right guard Rufus Jones, who transferred in from Autauga Academy, and right tackle Tyson Davis. Alex Barajas will start at left tackle while Gary Hood and Kaleb Stokes continue to battle for the starting job at left guard.

The defense returns a majority of the starting lineup, including several key players on the line. TJ Jackson and William Whitlow Jr. are back with the goal of becoming all-state teammates and they will be joined by Caleb Foster and Justin Motley.

Stanhope will have to replace all its linebackers but Bradford is confident in the new players stepping into the roles. Martin Toby is likely going to play a majority of the snaps at middle linebacker while Dylan Davis, Frederick Bass and Jeremiah Cherry Daniel will see the field at the other two spots.

“I feel great about them,” Bradford said. “The back end is returning so that helps a lot because they can help out with some of the calls and that takes the pressure off of them a little bit. They’re not as experienced as the ones we’ve had but they’re more athletic and a little bit feistier.”

Jeremy Thompson leads the secondary as he enters his third year as the starting safety. Frederick Moore and Quentarius Edwards also return while Carter Harrison moves into a starting role after seeing plenty of playing time off the bench last season. 

“I just try to keep everyone in check and make sure everyone is doing their jobs,” Thompson said. “I’ll do my job on top of that and that makes us come together and play together as a team.”

While the pressure may be on the offense to get some points on the board, the Mustangs will be relying on its defense to win games down the stretch. There are some questions surrounding the  depth and both units will have to do their jobs to keep players fresh if Stanhope wants to compete for a region title.

“Everybody has to keep each other up and stay positive,” Thompson said. “When we play as a team, we play better. If we bring the juice on defense, I know the offense will bring the juice. And if they do something bad on offense, they know the defense will have their back.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.