Cabot hopes to build on the momentum it found at the end of 2012. The Panthers won two straight 7A/6A East Conference games and a first-round playoff game at Bryant (28-21) before falling to North Little Rock 28-0 in the quarterfinals.
“We kind of gave a couple away during the middle of the season against West Memphis and Little Rock Central,” Cabot veteran coach Mike Malham said. “We were sitting there at 4-4 wondering if we were going to right the ship and bow up. We responded and beat a good Jonesboro team and Searcy, and won at Bryant. That was a good game, and we played that game a lot like we did against Jonesboro. We had to play North Little Rock again, and they were such a talented club, and we didn’t have an answer for them.”
Fourteen starters return from that team, giving the Panthers hope that they can compete for a conference title.
“We started 10 sophomores two years ago and only won three games, and last year we won seven,” Malham said. “We are optimistic about this year. The big problem could be depth. We are limited there, and we may have to play some kids both ways. We have some good players, but we need more. We have a few holes and are looking for backups, but if we can stay away from injuries, I think we can be pretty decent.”
Senior quarterback Kason Kimbrell (5-10, 185) returns to lead the Dead T run-oriented attack. Kimbrell accounted for 430 total yards despite missing four games with a broken foot.
“We expect a good year out of him,” Malham said. “We have some kids that can catch, so we are going to try to put it in the air a little bit. That might help our running game.”
Classmate Chris Henry (5-7, 150) joins Kimbrell in the backfield. Henry (4.5 speed) ran for more than 600 yards and racked up 138 yards and a touchdown in the win at Bryant — the Panthers’ first road playoff win since 2002. Henry is also a dangerous punt and kick returner. He returned a kick for the potential tying score as time ran out against Little Rock Central, but an illegal block negated the score.
Senior Preston Jones (5-9, 160) and junior Jack Whisker (5-10, 177) have battled for the other halfback spot and could share duties this fall.
Senior fullback Zach Launius (5-6, 170) struggled with injuries in the offseason, hurting his shoulder lifting weights, and fracturing his eye socket playing baseball. Launius (4.5 speed) ran for nearly 600 yards last fall despite missing part of the season with an injury.
Stout senior tight end Keith Pledger (6-0, 264) is a load at tight end. Pledger (325-pound bench press, 290-pound power clean and 455-pound squat) caught a 7-yard touchdown against North Little Rock.
Seniors Heath Pledger (6-0, 268) and Martin Turner (5-7, 250) anchor the line as three-year starters. Heath Pledger, Keith Pledger’s twin, mans the right guard spot, while Turner is at right tackle.
Classmate Blake Gibson (6-0, 200) rotated at all of the line spots last fall but will play full time at center in 2013. Junior Brett Frazier (6-3, 210) didn’t compete in spring football because of a knee injury he sustained in basketball. However, he has recovered from offseason surgery and fills in at tight end when the Panthers employ a double tight-end formation.
The concerns on an otherwise veteran line are on the left side. One player quit the team, and another was dismissed. Senior Devin Crawford (5-11, 243) didn’t play last season but returned to the team in the offseason.
Senior Jordan Stull (5-10, 230) earned the tackle job after playing sparingly last fall.
“[The left side] is a little bit of a worry, but spring football helps a lot, and fall camp,” Malham said. “They should be ready to go by the time the conference season starts.”
Junior Wyatt Talik (5-8, 190) adds depth, as will classmate Jonathan Crowder (5-8, 260).
The Panthers only yielded 19 points per game last fall. Malham welcomes seven starters from that unit.
Senior tackles Brandon Arthur (6-2, 215) and Aaron Henry (5-11, 265), who squats 420 pounds, anchor the line. Junior Tristan Bulice (5-10, 237) fills in at nose guard. Junior Brian Marshall (5-9, 165) earned a starting end position, but in mid-August, Malham said “four or five players were still competing for the other end spot.”
The Panthers feature a standout linebacker in senior all-starter Jake Vaughn (6-0, 180), who racked up a team-leading 126 tackles.
“He has a lot of experience and will call our defensive signals,” Malham said. “He is just a good kid.”
Senior Patrick Neyhart (5-10, 188) fills the other linebacker spot.
Sophomore Dylan Thompson (5-10, 160) assists at linebacker.
Junior safety Jake Ferguson (6-0, 190) earned Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sophomore Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012. Ferguson totaled 108 tackles, which was second on the squad. Ferguson snagged seven interceptions, including four in the playoffs. Bryant torched the Panthers for 364 yards passing, but Ferguson’s two interceptions were key in the win.
Senior Colby Ferguson (5-11, 181), Jake Ferguson’s cousin, returns at strong safety, where he recorded 57 tackles a year ago.
Senior cornerback Jordan Burke (5-9, 160) amassed 31 tackles and three picks last fall. Burke (4.3 speed) is “the fastest player we have had here.” Inexperienced junior Logan Melder (5-10, 153) earned the other corner spot. Melder’s father, Lee, played for Malham on the 1983 state title team and coaches the Cabot South Junior High squad.
The Ferguson cousins, Burke and Melder, will also split out wide on offense in passing situations, Malham said.