Atkins started 5-0 last year, but the Red Devils’ hopes for a stellar season went down with injuries after that.
Once the string of injuries started, Tommy Cody’s team lost seven starters on offense and six on defense.
“Most of those went both ways,” said Cody, who is starting his third year at Atkins. “We had some young guys who wound up having to play, and that should help us this year.”
Despite finishing 3-4 (after a 3-0 start) in the 4-3A, the Red Devils advanced to the playoffs again as the league’s fourth seed. They lost to Camden Harmony Grove, the third seed from the 6-3A, in the opening round, 40-22.
Seven starters return for the Spread offense, with the same number back for the 5-2 defense.
Alex Spradlin (5-11, 170) filled in after senior quarterback Ty Ennis went down. He returns for his junior year at quarterback. He’ll be joined on the offense by senior Brandon Burns (5-8, 150) and junior Tyler Halford (5-8, 130) at split end; senior Cole Duvall (5-10, 175) at the Y receiver; senior Wendel Johnston (6-2, 240) at right tackle; junior Jordan Duvall (6-0, 215) at right guard; junior Jake Alexander (5-8, 285) at center; junior Kaleb Pyle (6-0, 210) at left guard; senior Kevin Jones (6-1, 175) at left tackle; senior Malachi McDaniel (5-10, 185) at halfback; and senior Jacob Chisum (5-8, 155) at fullback.
Ten of those will also start on defense. Alexander will be at nose guard, Cole Duvall and Jones will be at the ends, and Jordan Duvall and Wendel Johnston will be at tackle. Chisum and junior Colby Johnston (6-0, 190) will be at linebacker. The secondary will include Burns and Halford at the corners, and Spradlin and McDaniel at safety.
“We do have some guys with experience from all the injuries last year,” Cody said. “They were forced to play. But our weakness is that we have very little depth, less than usual. We have 28 on the roster, which is about normal, but just six seniors, so that class is kind of small, and the sophomore class is physically not ready yet. I hope we can get them ready.”
The Red Devils opened conference play last year with wins over Cedarville, 46-34; Lavaca, 48-28; and Charleston, 32-29. But losses to Mansfield (44-26), Paris (28-0), Lamar (26-22) and Danville (30-13) followed.
Expectations for this year?
“Our first goal is to play hard and compete in every game,” Cody said. “We don’t even talk about the scoreboard. Second is, we want to have a winning record and make the playoffs. Once we make the playoffs, who knows what can happen?”
But getting there could be tough, he said, because of the strength of the 4-3A.
“Charleston may be the one to beat in the whole state,” Cody said. “They are really good. They’ve got [Ty Storey], the quarterback who has already committed to the University of Arkansas. A lot of our teams are really good; it’s a super strong conference.”
He also mentioned Cedarville, Mansfield and Lamar as among those to watch.
“Everybody in our conference is very strong this year,” he said.
While the coach said all the Red Devils’ games would be important, the opener with Dover could be key. The Pope County foes play for the Rivals Cup.
“Even though they’re [Class] 4A, and we’re not supposed to win, we’ve won more than we’ve lost,” Cody said. “If we compete well and figure out some way to win, that would really be a great start for us.”