By Rubin E. Grant
Oak Mountain coach Cris Bell believes the Eagles are ready to challenge for a playoff berth this season.
“If we can stay healthy, we’ll be OK,” Bell said. “We’ve got a really solid nucleus returning. On defense, we have nine guys who started or played impactful snaps. On offense, we’ve got (quarterback) Evan (Smith) back. He makes a lot of things go for us. He can take a bad call of mine and make it better.
“The talent and outright ability on offense is the best we’ve had since the 2014 or 2015 season.”
The Eagles haven’t been to the Class 7A playoffs since 2016 and are coming off a 4-6 season in 2019.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Eagles:
Smith, a junior, has started since he was a freshman and already has multiple college offers.
Titus Tucker, a senior who moved in from California, will back up Smith and play some receiver. Senior Tyler Do-Bui, who was Evan’s backup last year, is another backup and will play slot receiver.
“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,” Bell said.
Senior Judah Tait will be the tailback. He started last year and averaged more than 5 yards a carry.
“He’s got a bunch of ability, but we need more consistency from him,” Bell said.
Junior Aiden Laughlin and sophomore Trey Vassell will serve as backups.
Sophomore Mark Johnson will play A-back. He lettered as a freshman.
“We need him to grow up in a hurry,” Bell said. “He’s got the talent and ability, and he’s got good hands.”
Junior Cade George also will play the position.
“He’s got good speed and can get on the corner,” Bell said.
Also in the mix is junior Corbitt Grundhoefer.
“He’s a good athlete with good hands,” Bell said. “He’s a good role player.”
Senior Jaquarius Davis is another.
“We need to get him out in the open,” Bell said. “He can turn average plays into big plays.”
Senior Noah Young, 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, is a big-play receiver. He has gotten offers from the University of North Alabama and Samford University. Junior Ethan Hammett is a returning starter.
“He’s put some weight on,” Bell said. “He’s got good speed. We think he could be a dynamic player. Tucker also will play some receiver.
Senior Harrison Miller will play tight end and H-back.
The Eagles have three returning starters: Junior Nic Rigdon, who will play center or guard, senior guard Alex Mathis and senior right tackle Drew Rowland. Senior Chris Mattox is expected to slide in at left tackle after gaining some experience last year. The center position is up for grabs with senior Nolan Fuqua, junior Charlie Serra and sophomore Hudson Youngblood competing for the spot.
Junior Grayson Cowart and sophomore Alfredo Hernandez also will vie for playing time.
“This is the most experienced line we’ve had in some time,” Bell said.
The Eagles have plenty of experience up front with three returning starters, including defensive ends Gavin Nelson, a junior, and Braxton O’Brien, a senior. Junior Zach Smith is slated to be the backup.
Senior Micai George returns as a starter at nose tackle with junior Mason Burnett and seniors Andrew Lee and Jacob Katona ready in reserve.
“I like that group,” Bell said. “It’s the best we’ve had since 2015. Mason has a high motor. They have done a lot of disrupting our offense in camp.”
The linebacking corps is the least experienced group on the defense. Junior Cam Atkinson is expected to be one of the starters. Senior Dean Null, who started at safety last year, has moved to linebacker. Others in the mix are junior Mattox Vines, sophomore Garrett Murphy and senior Tucker Boswell.
All four starters return in the secondary with seniors Zach Taylor and Jimmy Harris at cornerback, although Harris missed most of last season because of an injury. Senior Chase Schwender returns as the starting free safety and senior Eli Hackbarth is the strong safety/rover.
Sophomore Devan Moss, junior Quest Agee and senior Hogan Morton will be the reserves.
Morton will take care of the place-kicking duties for the Eagles, while Garrett Murphy is likely to be the punter.