Coker, now at Birmingham Southern, led the Panthers last year in passing (1,480 yards) and rushing (827 yards). He was also a key contributor on defense at cornerback.
Upcoming senior C.J. Jones knows that’s a pretty tall order to fill, but he’s ready for the challenge.
“Nathan is a different type of quarterback than me,” Jones said. “I’m not near as fast as he was. I’m more in the pocket, and he could do it all. Just about anybody would like to be in the position I’m in, because I’ve got one of the greatest lines in the state. I’d put them up against anybody. I should have all kind of time to do what I need back there.”
It’s not as if Jones is starting from scratch. He got playing time at the position as the Panther backup quarterback last season. Jones also filled in at quarterback as a sophomore when Coker was injured in an automobile accident.
Collinsville coach Alan Beckett has confidence Jones can step into the role full-time and make an identity for himself.
“He brings a different element,” Beckett said. “Nathan could make people miss and could run. C.J. is more of a drop-back pocket guy. He’s really smart, really heady, and he comes from really good lineage. His dad (“Bear” Jones) was on a team that went to the final four in basketball. His granddaddy (Donny Jones), our principal, was quarterback in the semifinals and they won the state in basketball. That’s pretty good lineage. He’s a special kid.”
Jones isn’t the only Panther with big shoes to fill. The Panthers also lost several other key skill position players from their back-to-back region championship teams, including lineman Luis Perez, defensive back Curtis Williams and linebacker Tray Reed.
“Depth is an issue with us all the way around, so we need to stay healthy,” Beckett said. “Last year, we were fast in a lot of things we did. We probably won’t be quite at that pace. It’s a different look. With some inexperience, you don’t completely know what you’ve got. You kind of find things out as you go, but what this team brings is they play hard and they’re really coachable. We have an idea of what our identity is. We’ll just see if our identity matches up.”
Two playmakers Jones hopes to utilize are senior receivers Deshawn Moore and Edgar Padilla. Moore had 27 catches for 515 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Padilla had 12 catches for 237 yards and a score.
Moore said he has confidence Jones can deliver when needed.
“He may not be as fast as Nathan was, but he’s a smart quarterback,” Moore said. “He knows his reads. I believe he’ll make the right ones when it’s time.”
Jones will also have sophomore Brady Osborn and senior Brett Bowen at tight end. Senior kicker David Hernandez will also see some time at receiver.
Joining Jones in the backfield is running backs Daniel Bradford, Justin Little and Nick Hoffman.
“It’ll be spread around,” Beckett said. “That’s kind of what we did last year. I think we’re better that way. We’re not necessarily going to pitch it to a 2,000-yard rusher and let him run. It’s going to have to be spread around a little bit.”
Jones said all his offensive weapons “make my job a lot easier.”
“I can throw a bad ball and Deshawn can go up and get it whenever he wants to. Edgar, on the other side, is quick. You can throw it anywhere and he can go get it. We’ve got some great running backs I can throw a swing (pass) to and they can take it all the way.”
The Panther offensive line should be strong once again. Beckett said the line has four starters returning.
“We lost a good one in Luis Perez, but we return some physical guys,” Beckett said. “Clay Coker, a senior at center, is kind of like the quarterback of our line. He does a great job dissecting fronts. Kevin McElrath, whose brother (Robert Gray) plays at Jacksonville State, is 6-foot-1, 305-pounds and has great feet. He could be an all-star. Sharrard Dupree will be in his third year to start at tackle. Jess Walls will be in his second year to start. Nick Brandon is a new guy there. We could be physical, but we’ve got to stay healthy.”
Clay Coker said “this is the biggest line we’ve had in a while.”
“I feel like we can run the ball this year and can control the game,” he said. “We’ve got the size. We’ve been working real hard this summer. Everybody’s been pushing it. We’ve had a lot of leadership from our seniors stepping up.”
Clay Coker and most of the offensive line guys also help anchor the Panther defensive front. Moore, Bradford and Justin Little will patrol the secondary, but the linebacker spots are still up for grabs.
“We’ve got questions at linebacker as to who will come through,” Beckett said. “We’ve got some new faces there. We lost some good ones.”
A competitive Class 1A, Region 7 that features traditional rivals Cedar Bluff, Gaylesville Spring Garden, Valley Head and Woodville just got even tougher with the additions of Donoho, Jacksonville Christian and Coosa Christian.
Some of those games could be won by a kick, and Beckett returns one of the state’s better ones in Hernandez.
Hernandez nailed a second-round playoff game-winning 27-yard field goal in the closing seconds last season. He finished the year connecting on three of his five field goal attempts and booted 54 of 55 extra points.
Hernandez was also a key member of last year’s Panther soccer team that made the state semifinals.
“He’s steady, and he’s always working,” Beckett said. “He went to camp at the University of Alabama this year. He’s working on different hashes and everything. I’ve just got a lot of faith in him.”
Hernandez said if it comes down to him winning a game, he doesn’t mind the pressure.
“We’re going to have to battle the whole time this season. There’s not going to be an easy team,” Hernandez said. “All the games are going to be close, so yeah, I may have that chance where I have to pull through. I like it. I like being under pressure.”