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File / Tallapoosa Publishers Wetumpka’s Devonta Jerido (16) will be starting at cornerback this season.

There are still a few players on the Wetumpka football team who remember the trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2017 when the Indians lost to Pinson Valley in the Class 6A state title game. Now, those players have their sights set on The Plains to take care of the unfinished business that has been haunting the Indians.

“This is a different atmosphere for us,” Wetumpka senior Malik Davis said. “Two years ago, we were the underdogs but now we’re the big dogs. So, it’s our last year and now we have to get up for it. We know it’s going to be tough but we just have to keep pushing and doing our own thing.”

Wetumpka has plenty of holes to fill from last year’s team that made it to the semifinals but the team’s confidence is not wavering. Indians coach Tim Perry said he wants expectations to be high but they have to find a balance while also staying focused on what it takes to get back to state.

“Our expectations are not going to change but we also have to be realistic,” Perry said. “You never know, this team could come out of the gates and pick up where we left off last year but there might also be a little bit of growing pains.”

Perry said the team’s No. 1 goal right now is winning the region. He hopes his young players can take advantage of getting a game in Week 0 so they can see two strong opponents before getting into region play.

“We understand as coaches that it’s going to take a couple of games for them to get comfortable, especially if they’re sophomores,” Perry said. “I think it’s going to be valuable experience. It’s not necessarily about how you start but it’s about how you’re playing toward the end of the season and as you get ready to go into the playoffs. That’s the approach we need to take.”

The challenges earlier in the year will not be easy as Wetumpka hits the road for its first five games. Perry said he will be looking at his team’s leaders to keep the Indians focused and prepared for the remainder of the season no matter what the results are early in the year.

Fortunately, he has a strong group of seniors he can rely on and most of them are on the offensive side of the ball. It starts with returning quarterback Tyquan Rawls who had a breakout season and was a finalist for 6A Back of the Year as a junior.

“We have a lot of confidence now,” Rawls said. “It was kind of iffy for a little bit when we still had open spots on the line but when he found that first five, they’ve been doing good and practice has been good since we’ve been in pads so I feel good about it.”

Rawls admitted he has his eyes set on breaking JD Martin’s school rushing record of 2,039 yards in a season but he said the main goal is to get the program its first state title. Rawls may have high hopes for his rushing attack but the Indians may not miss too much of a beat after rushing for over 4,000 yards as a team last year.

Terrance Thomas, who passed the century mark in rushing yards last season, returns as the top running back and will be spelled by Josh Allen. In a read-option offense, Perry said it is nice to have two players who know each other so well.

“That’s extremely important,” Perry said. “It takes some pressure off of us as offensive coaches when we have two guys like that who come back after having 14 years’ experience together in this offense. They developed that chemistry together and that’s huge.”

While Wetumpka will likely focus on its running game, Rawls believes the passing attack will improve. With the likes of Davis, Jaleel Johnson, Brandon Bowman and Timothy Johnson leading the way at receiver, it’s easy to see why the Indians have that confidence through the air.

“They have continued to develop and get better so we have 100 percent confidence in our receivers,” Perry said. “All of those guys have gained that by their level of play and that’s a good feeling from a coaching standpoint. We feel good about getting the ball to all of them in a pressure situation.”

The offensive line is replacing three starters but Ben Barker returns to take over the duties at center. Abe Preston will start at left guard while Colby Golson and Aydin Grayson battle for left tackle. Perry said Denzil Sturles and Caleb Harper will start at right guard and right tackle, respectively.

The biggest concern for the Indians comes on the defensive side of the ball where the team returns just four full-time starters. Kenny Cole is expected to move from linebacker to defensive end where he will start in a four-man front with Myles Ross, Tasun Traylor and Brentoni Stoudemire.

Kamarre Murphy moves in from safety to take a starting position at outside linebacker while Tabor Smith and Lamarius Jackson will see most of the time at the other starting spots. Dylan Price and Austin Turner are also expected to get time at linebacker.

Devonta Jerido saw plenty of playing time last season and will move into a starting cornerback role with Chris Congo taking up the other spot. Hezekiah Nowden returns as a third-year starter at safety and he will be joined by Avery Thomas.

“I really trust my young guys,” Nowden said. “The defensive line is really the same because it was a rotation but our new DBs are doing pretty good.”

Rawls and Davis will also both see playing time in the secondary but it will likely be in only late-game situations. Perry said it is also possible to see them when the opponents are in the red zone or on third downs in region games.

While the offense appears to be the strength, Perry said he is confident the defense will get where it needs to be to compete on the big stage. However, if the team does get into shootouts, he wants his offense to be prepared.

“I don’t know if you can expect that but obviously, we want to continue our level of play offensively and we still like our schemes,” Perry said. “We try to play fast and spread the ball out as much as we can. We would like to go into it thinking if we get into a high-scoring game, we want to have confidence we can continue to move the ball and score points.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.