Judging by a recent Spring Garden football practice, the Panthers are having a little more fun too.
After leaving Spring Garden for a two-year coaching stint at his alma mater Ohatchee, Howard returns for a second tour of duty as the Panthers’ head coach. Howard coached the Panthers from 2003-09 and guided the program to back-to-back playoff appearances his last two seasons at Spring Garden.
He’s hoping to add a lot more to that in his second term.
“I don’t think leaving two years ago was necessarily a mistake. It was something I needed to do,” Howard said. “It had always been a goal of mine. I think any coach in their mind wants to go back to where they played.
“Ohatchee will always hold a special place in my heart because I graduated from there, but I’ve been involved in everything going on in Cherokee County for 20 years now. Spring Garden is home.”
Howard isn’t going to have to start from scratch in his return, either. The Panthers have the majority of last season’s roster coming back, including senior tailback Forrest Livingston.
Livingston has been a 1,000-yard rusher the past two seasons. He led the Cherokee County area last year with 1,451 yards on 229 carries with 17 touchdowns.
“I think he’s that prototypical back that fits into our system,” Howard said. “He’s a Tyler Messer, Trey Littlefield-type. He’s a big, strong back. Of course, we never have anybody with a whole lot of speed, but he’s going to be a workhorse for us all the way through.
“Forrest has worked real hard and I look for him to have another real good season this year. The number of carries will probably decrease from what he’s had the past couple of years, but I look for his yardage to stay the same and increase.”
Livingston said he’s excited to see what he can do to help the Panthers make a playoff push.
“I think it’s going to turn out real well,” Livingston said. “We have a good, solid senior class. Coach Howard coming back has really put a hop in our step. It’s back to the way it was – real intense and everything. We’re all pushing each other a little harder.”
Joining Livingston in the backfield is Tyler Morgan, whom Howard said gives the Panthers a little more speed. Senior Craig Jones will line up at fullback. Returning at quarterback is junior Will Ivey.
The Panthers also feature several returning players on the offensive line, including Jones and seniors B.J. Turner and Caleb Stewart. Junior Zack Dobbs will start at center. Senior Jake Grogan will split time at tight end and slot receiver.
“We’re not going to throw the ball a whole lot,” Howard said. “We’re going to keep it on the ground and try to manipulate the clock in our favor. So far at practice, we’ve been pretty solid as far as our offensive stuff.
“We’re going to run a lot of the same sets they ran last year. We’ve picked up on some different things. One of the things we’ve got going for us is good linemen, Forrest at the tailback spot, and a very smart quarterback. I’m going to put a lot in Will Ivey’s hands and let him make some decisions out there.”
Turner and Jones are both excited to see what the Panthers can do this season.
“Coach Howard had a lot of success when he was here last time, so we’re hoping to try and build on his success,” Turner said. “Hopefully we’ll try and repeat what he did when he was here last time.
Added Jones: “Three years ago, there was a senior class that come through here and left a pretty big trademark. I think we want to leave ours and put our name out there. I think we’re more than capable of doing that. We’ve definitely put the hard work into it.”
Many of the faces on the Panther offense will play vital roles on defense, coached by Barrett Ragsdale.
Howard noted the Panther secondary, which features seniors Josh Hale and Will Penton, should be the strong point of the unit.
“We’ll base out of a 40-front and make adjustments from whatever formation we have,” Howard said. “We’ve got a very experienced secondary coming back, but we’ve got to get some help on the defensive line. I’d like to have some people step up where we didn’t have to play our big kids both ways.”
The Panthers still compete in Class 1A, Region 7, but the region is now comprised of nine teams. Joining Spring Garden is familiar foes Collinsville, Cedar Bluff, Gaylesville, Valley Head and Woodville. New teams added to the region are Coosa Christian, Donoho and Jacksonville Christian.
“I think all three of them (the new additions) will be pretty good,” Howard said. “Donoho had a good run last year. Cedar Bluff and Collinsville are going to be strong. Those two are givens with the tradition both of them have. Collinsville has sort of ruled the roost for the past couple of years. I think they’re going to be two of the teams to beat. I feel like the rest of us you can throw in a hat and it would be even. It’s going to be interesting to see how it shapes up.”