New era begins for Panthers

Published 12:10 am Saturday, September 2, 2017

By Kevin Eckleberry

LAGRANGE – It’s game day.

A new era will get under way today when the LaGrange College football team open its season against Birmingham Southern.

LaGrange College will be led onto the field by the third head coach in the history of the program, and he’s someone familiar to local football fans.

Steve Pardue, who guided LaGrange High to three state championships, has taken over the LaGrange College program, and he’s eager to get started.

“I told the coaches, I feel like it’s the first year I ever coached,” Pardue said. “I’m just excited.”

Pardue compiled a 161-45 record during his 17 seasons as LaGrange High’s head coach, and his teams won state

championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

After a two-year stint as an assistant coach at Kentucky, Pardue returned to the high-school game as the head coach at East Coweta, and he held that position through the 2016 season.

At LaGrange College, Pardue replaces Matt Mumme, who left to become the offensive coordinator at Nevada.

Pardue got to know many of the players during spring practice, and the entire team has been together for about a month for preseason camp.

“The kids’ attitude has been great,” Pardue said. “We’re asking them to do some things differently. I’m not saying my way is any better than anybody else’s, but it’s different than what they’ve been doing. I think the kids have done a great job of buying in, and we’ve just got to keep working.”

One of the major changes is on the offensive side of the football.

Under Mumme, the Panthers ran a pass-oriented offense where the run was almost an after-thought.

Now, the Panthers will be using the Wing-T offense that will feature a heavy dose of the running game.

Over the past few weeks, the offensive players have received a crash course in running that offense.

“You don’t see them all summer, and then they get here on the eighth of August, and you’re playing on Sept. 2. So it’s flown by,” Pardue said. “But we’ve got a lot of stuff put in, and hopefully we’ll go out and execute on Saturday.”

LaGrange College got to take a test run on Aug. 22 when it hosted a scrimmage against Middle Georgia.

The new-look LaGrange College offense found the end zone four times, with senior quarterback Connor Blair leading the way.

Blair threw touchdown passes to Marcus Campbell and Kendrick Johnson, and Brandon Snowball and Tyriano Greene both had scoring runs.

Snowball is one a part of a talented group of freshmen that Pardue recruited.

Snowball ran for 2,600 yards and 25 touchdowns in two seasons at Arabia Mountain.

Former LaGrange Granger Guy Wegienka, a sophomore tight end, had a 35-yard catch to set up one of the touchdowns.

Pardue said seeing some of the players in pads was eye-opening.

“A couple of the guys looked OK in the spring, but when you get the pads on they impressed you even more,” Pardue said. “It’s always good to have those kinds of surprises. Some of the freshmen we haven’t seen since March, and they get here and they’ve grown two inches. That happens at this age.”

One of the veterans of the program is Blair, who thrived in Mumme’s “Air Raid” offense, and he was one of NCAA Division III’s most prolific passers the past two seasons.

Now, Blair will be leading a different kind of offense, and Pardue said he’s pleased with the way he’s handled the change.

“Connor Blair’s obviously a guy that’s thrown for a lot of yardage,” Pardue said. “I was really proud of Connor in the spring transitioning to a new offense. I thought he was very receptive, very excited about it.”

After the scrimmage, the Panthers had another full week of practice in preparation for today’s opener.

Pardue said every moment spent on the practice field is critical.

“What you do in practice is going to carry over to the game,” Pardue said. “Everybody thinks you’re going to win the game on Saturday, but you win the game all during the week. It’s how you prepare.

“And I’m a big believer in you’re preparing for one of two things, to win or to lose.”

Helping Pardue get the players ready for the season is a coaching staff he has a lot of confidence in.

It’s a staff that features a mix of new coaches, as well as men who have been in the program for a few years.

Among the newcomers are two coaches that Pardue has been working with for decades, offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach David Pleasants, as well as linebackers coach Thomas Crocker.

Returning coaches include assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Earl Chambers, wide-receivers coach Felton Huggins, and defensive-line coach Kendall Todd.

“The staff I have has been such a great help,” Pardue said. “That’s probably been the biggest blessing of my coaching career has been the staffs I’ve been able to have. I’ve been fortunate with the guys I’ve worked with, and this is another good group of coaches.”

Today’s opponent is a familiar one.

LaGrange College and Birmingham Southern played for the first time in 2008, and they’ve met every year since then.

In the 2008 season opener, LaGrange College beat Birmingham Southern 34-31 for the first win in the history of the program.

Like LaGrange College, Birmingham Southern enters the season with a new head coach.

Tony White, previously the offensive coordinator at Centre College in Kentucky, has taken over at Birmingham Southern.

“They’ve got a whole new offensive and defensive staff, so you wonder exactly what you’re going to get,” Pardue said.

LaGrange College will continue its season with a road game against Berry College on Sept. 9 before opening USA South play at Methodist on Sept. 16.

“I don’t know if you’re ever ready for the first game, but at some point you’ve got to have the first game,” Pardue said. “And then you come back and work on things and you get ready for the next one.”