By Blake Ells
Mountain Brook had a few important holes to fill as the 2018 football season arrived, but the Spartans have managed to find new ways to be productive offensively.
In the opener against Northridge on Aug. 24, the Spartans spread the carries around as they learn how to replace Harold Joiner, who graduated last spring.
Starting running back AJ Gates was banged up early, which opened the door for senior Daniel Wilbanks to add 70 yards on 10 carries. Sophomore quarterback Strother Gibbs also aided the ground attack with 51 yards and two touchdowns. Sam Higgins added 83 yards on 11 carries when Wilbanks departed with cramps. In all, the Spartans tallied 260 yards in the opener as they defeated Northridge 30-14.
“We have several packages set up for each of us,” Wilbanks said. “So we hope to spread the love. We’re all different kinds of backs. AJ is fast and quick and I’m more of a power runner. Sam is a little mix of both.”
A year ago, Wilbanks started at linebacker. While he saw some action at running back in middle school, this is the most significant time he has had on the offensive side of the ball in high school.
“It’s different,” said Wilbanks. “There are a lot of new assignments to learn, but it hasn’t been too difficult to make the switch.”
Gibbs was 11-of-15 through the air for 174 yards and a touchdown through the air against Northridge. The Spartans scored 17 unanswered in the second half to clinch the victory. He was 4-of-7 for 50 yards in the Spartans’ week two 43-0 shutout of Center Point.
“He’s a real cool and calm guy,” Wilbanks said of the young quarterback. “He’s confident under pressure. He’s not really a vocal leader, so (the seniors) can handle that role. But he’s really confident for a sophomore and he’s fit the role perfectly.”
Among that group of senior leaders is tackle Michael Mancuso and wide receivers Hamp Greene and Pierce Rodrigues.
Wilbanks had a breakout game in week two, leading the Spartans with 108 yards on 11 carries. Gates returned to add 77 yards on 10 carries, while Higgins added 71 yards in second-half relief.
Now, Mountain Brook’s attention turns to a grueling 7A Region 3 stretch.
“We focus on fundamentals and details,” Wilbanks said. “We’re a smaller team, so we’re going to have to win with heart and effort because we’re going to be outsized and outnumbered in every game we play in this long stretch of 7A in Region 3.”
That begins with a trip to Tuscaloosa County this week, followed by home games against Spain Park and Vestavia Hills. They’ll welcome a mid-session bye before the region stretch that will define their season: trips to Oak Mountain, Hewitt-Trussville and Hoover, with a home game against Thompson wedged in between.