The Lufkin Panthers are coming off of a “disappointing” 9-2 season in 2003. The season was disappointing in the eyes of some because the Panthers had a special group of players that couldn’t gel as a team at the right time. The result was a first round upset in the playoffs at the hands of Garland. Lufkin enters the 2004 season with renewed focus after the humbling defeat against Garland that showed the Panthers just how tough it would be to get back to the state title game after winning it all in 2001.
Lufkin has had two great varsity teams come through since 2001, but haven’t managed to put things together at the right time. The challenge for the now Houston area aligned Panthers will be to live their motto of “One Pack Together”, and not allow any external or internal forces disrupt the overall goal or vision of the team. As mentioned above, Lufkin was moved out of their east Texas district and into a north Houston district in 14-5A. The Panthers will now play the Conroe and Klein schools in addition to Huntsville. The non-district schedule is stacked as always with opening games at Eisenhower and at home versus rival Tyler Lee. A total of nine starters return for the Panthers, and six of those are on offense. All-State caliber player, senior Jorvorskie Lane (6’1 235 4.6), will start for the third straight season this fall. Lane is a load for any defense to handle, and his partner in the backfield, junior E.J. Shankle, makes life even tougher on opposing defenses with his breakaway speed. In fact, Lufkin may have the best one-two punch backfield in the state between Lane and Shankle.
Jacovey Smallwood (6’0 175) will enter the season as the undisputed starter at quarterback, although his backup senior Zeke Fancher is a capable player. Smallwood is a balanced quarterback with good passing ability and decent running talents. Smallwood isn’t a player that will beat a defense with his legs. He will use the playmakers around him to move the football downfield, but he does have deceptive quickness when he decides to pull it down and run. The Panthers were young as a unit at the receiver position last season, and will benefit from that this year. Senior Roy Gardner (6’0 170) is the top returning receiver along with junior Lenard Hewitt. Hewitt is the faster of the two. Both have major varsity experience. Losing the big target, Ray Givens, to graduation may hurt but the Panthers never seem at a loss for skill talent. Tony Kiel may fit into Givens’ former role this fall. The offensive line was hit very hard by graduation with five proven players gone, but there are young players ready to step up.
Two players that earned varsity letters in 2003 are seniors Charles Proctor (6’1 270) and DeAndre Redmon (6’2 245). William Cole is another senior who will provide needed varsity experience. Lufkin had one of the top defenses in the state last fall and replacing big time producers like Chris Pilot, Tyson Kirksey, Jacoby Shepard and Joe Hadnot will not be easy. However, a few key starters do return on this side of the ball. Defensive back Alton Dixon (6’1 185 4.4) is an All-State caliber player as is fellow senior defensive lineman McKinner Dixon (6’3 245). McKinner Dixon is getting major D 1-A college interest, and is a dominant force on the line. Coach Quick should have this unit ready to bring it. Joining Dixon up front will be junior Roger Hurts and senior Rashad Hunt. Both earned varsity letters in 2003, so playing under the big lights won’t phase these two. Hunt is 6’3, 250 and that size allows him to plug gaps. Both players have great speed for interior linemen. A young player to look out for is junior Robert Taylor (6’3 215 4.6). Taylor’s size-speed combo makes him hard to handle for high school linemen. Senior Robert Murphy will anchor the linebacking crew along with athletic juniors Mandela Roberts and Eric Taylor. Roberts is very similar in size and speed to the graduated Tyson Kirksey at 6’1 205, 4.6. Taylor has 4.5 speed. Murphy provides the varsity game experience here. In fact, the “slowest” people on the Lufkin defense run 4.8s, and those are the interior linemen. Joining Alton Dixon in the secondary is former QB and senior Ashford Ayers (6‘2 200 4.5). Ayers was moved to defense during the off-season to help alleviate a quarterback controversy that divided the team in certain respects last year. Ayers’ athleticism allows him to project well as a skill player.
Ayers and Dixon provide big game experience, and if the Panthers can find two new corners to step up this defense will be scary. Although the defense lost a lot of key players some form of experience returns at each position and, like they say in Lufkin, tradition never graduates.