Countdown’s on for Panthers
By Kevin Eckleberry
LAGRANGE – There’s no time to waste.
The LaGrange College Panthers were on the turf of Callaway Stadium on Thursday afternoon for their first practice as they prepare for their season opener against Birmingham-Southern on Sept. 9.
That gives first-year head coach Steve Pardue and his assistants four weeks to prepare the players for a new season.
Pardue’s background is primarily in high-school coaching, and on that level there is no limitation on how much time coaches can spend with the players during the summer.
That’s not the case in NCAA Division III.
Once the players went their separate ways following spring practice, Pardue didn’t see most of them again until Wednesday when they reported for team camp.
“That’s the difference if you coach in high-school ball and Division III,” said Pardue, who had a 161-45 record as the head coach at LaGrange High while winning three state titles. “It’s the amount you’re around your guys. Most of ours go home in the summer. They get back on Aug. 9, and we play a game on Sept. 2. So we’ve got to utilize our time the best we can.”
In high-school football, opening day of practice is just another day since the players and coaches have already spent so much time together during the summer.
“In high school, your kids come in four days a week during the summer for four hours a day,” Pardue said.
At LaGrange College, it has been months since Pardue has seen most of the players, including the incoming freshmen that he helped recruit.
“It’s more exciting here because we’re not together,” Pardue said. “That kind of got me worried at the end of my high-school career. The first day of practice really wasn’t that big a deal, because you’d been doing it so long.”
The advantage high-school coaches have is that they’re able to install everything during the summer, but that’s not the case in Division III.
That difference is particularly noteworthy in LaGrange College’s case since the offensive players are having to learn a new system.
Under previous head coach Matt Mumme, the Panthers employed a pass-oriented offense where they were throwing the ball more than 50 times per game.
Now, the Panthers will be using a Wing T-type offense that will rely heavily on the running game.
“We’re still going to throw it 60, but about 40 of them will be in warm-ups,” Pardue joked.
During the first two days of practice, Pardue and offensive coordinator David Pleasants spent a lot of time familiarizing the returning and new players with the system.
Among those players is senior quarterback Connor Blair, who has started nearly every game the past two seasons while putting up massive numbers in Mumme’s system.
It’s a different situation on the other side of the football, with defensive coordinator Earl Chambers returning to run things.
Pardue said he’ll give all the players an equal evaluation, and a key to the decision-making process will be identifying the players who are doing the best job of picking things up.
“That’s the deal,” Pardue said. “If you’re not learning what to do, it’s hard to get evaluated. We’ve got to move to the next guy. That’s just the reality of it.”
Pardue is also aware of the non-football-related issues that’ll be confronting the many freshmen who have joined the program.
“We’ve got the kids coming in, and that’s a big responsibility,” Pardue said. “They’re leaving home. So I take that responsibility real seriously to be with them in this part of life. I remember it like it was yesterday when I was a freshman, walking back to the dorm, eating that cafeteria food. I thought I can’t eat that for five years, I’m ready to go home.
“ I’ll tell them, don’t be shocked with having thoughts like that. Fight through it.”
Pardue will have some familiar faces joining him on the coaching staff this season.
Pleasants and Thomas Crocker, who were with Pardue for much of his tenure as the LaGrange High head coach, will be working with him David once again at LaGrange College.
Pleasants is the offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach, and Crocker will coach the linebackers.
There are also a number of holdovers from the previous staff, including Chambers, wide-receivers coach Felton Huggins, and defensive-line coach Kendall Todd.
“I inherited some really good guys,” Pardue said. “Earl, and Felton and Kendall, they’ve made life easy for me.”
Nick Raszeja (outside linebackers), Jarred Rutherford (quarterbacks), Jamarkis Holmes (running backs), Lavell Meeks (wide receivers) and Jake Richards round out the coaching staff.
OF NOTE: LaGrange College’s players will put shoulder pads on for the first time today, and they’ll transition into full pads on Monday.