FORT PAYNE – The Fort Payne Wildcats' varsity football team has been working throughout the offseason to try and replace two valuable offensive weapons that helped lead them to a 6A, Region 8 championship last season.
The Wildcats began their offseason focusing on replacing the production of quarterback Jordan Bain, who threw for nearly 1,500 yards and 21 touchdowns last season before graduating in May.
Now Fort Payne has another hole to fill in their backfield as rising senior tailback Donald Winchester tore his ACL while competing at a prospect camp at the University of North Alabama on July 13. Winchester rushed for 800 yards, six touchdowns and averaged just under five yards per carry last season.
The ‘Cats planned on Winchester being a key athlete for them who would rarely take a play off the field before the injury.
“Not only was he going to be our running back, but was going to be a special teams guy and we were going to play him at corner a lot,” Fort Payne head coach Chris Elmore said Wednesday at the Wildcats’ team photo day. “He had been working at corner a lot over summer and we felt like he was a guy that we could put out there in key moments of a game and take away their best receiver.”
Winchester’s ability to play on both sides of the ball means that his injury can shake up Fort Payne’s depth chart dramatically. Elmore has told his team that it will take a group effort to replace that production.
“You cannot replace Donald with one guy. He’s just that good of a player,” Elmore said. “So, what we’ve challenged all of our guys to do, including me, is that we’ve all got to do better than we were going to do. Different guys will have to take on different roles and we have two choices at this point in the season. We can use it as motivation and play for him and try to honor him, so to speak, because he would give anything to be out there with us, or we can use it as an excuse. We’ve got to make that right choice. As disappointed as we are for him, we’ve got to move on and everybody has to step up their level of play offensively and defensively.”
The Wildcats have two rising juniors who both spent time at tailback early last year who could now be asked to play on both sides of the ball to fill the gap left from Winchester’s injury.
“We’re going to ask more of Hunter Love and Darwin Camp,” Elmore said. “They were playing a lot of running back this time last year, and then with all the injuries we had on defense, Darwin ended up moving to that side of the ball as a 10th-grader. Hunter was doing both early in the year before he got hurt and we missed him for about six weeks last year.
“We feel good about both of those guys. Darwin is a lot faster than people think he is. They’re both capable, but the reality is that they’ll both still have to play a lot of defense until we have some other guys prove that they can play their spots on defense better. They’re both too valuable on defense to just completely remove them from that side of the ball. I’ve challenged both of them and they know that the key for them is how good of shape they can both get in to and whether they can play every snap on defense and add 15-20 snaps on offense by the first game.”
Proof of Camp’s speed came during the spring when Fort Payne’s track and field team hosted their 6A Sectional Meet. Winchester and Camp both competed in the 100-meter dash during that meet and it was Camp who clocked the faster time of the two.
Fort Payne also has two younger tailbacks who could potentially step up and take some carries in sophomore Ashton Brown and freshman Alex Akins.
Elmore said that both Love and Camp have stepped in a big way since the team heard the news about Winchester.
“So far, the kids have taken it really well,” Elmore said. “They were both having a good summer already. Nobody wanted Donald to get hurt, but they’ve both taken it as a challenge and are trying to show us what they can do to pick up that slack.”
Fort Payne’s quarterback situation also features several different possibilities.
“We’ve also got some options with the quarterback situation,” Elmore said. “If Matthew [Shaddix] is not playing quarterback, he’s just as capable of playing running back, so we’ve got some different things we can do there.”
Shaddix rushed for 447 yards and three touchdowns and hauled in 35 receptions for 508 yards and seven touchdowns last year as a junior. He’s spent the offseason competing with rising juniors J.D. Blalock and Will Abbott for the Wildcats’ QB spot.
Elmore said that because of Shaddix and Blalock’s value as skill-position players, it’s possible that the Wildcats could willingly use multiple quarterbacks in 2019.
“People keep asking me who’s going to play quarterback and I think now, especially with the situation with Donald, we’ll play both of them,” Elmore said. “I think we’ll have to play both of them, and I don’t think it will be a situation where it’s by series, I think it’s going to be literally play-by-play.
“Depending on how we’re playing and what the defense is doing against us, I can see situations where J.D.’s the quarterback and I can see situations where Matthew is the quarterback. Will Abbott is another quarterback for us that does a good job, and I see situations where Will is the quarterback and Matthew and J.D. are both out there. I’ve told our coaches that at this point no stone can go unturned. We’ve got to be as creative as possible to make this work. At the same time, we can’t get crazy, but we’re really going to try to replace Donald’s production with eight or nine different guys.”
Carter Pinholster is another skill-position player who could help fill Winchester’s shoes. He led the Wildcats with 40 receptions for 605 yards and eight touchdowns last year while also rushing for three touchdowns and averaging over six yards per carry.
Other skill players who are set to be featured in this year’s offense include Solomon Strong, Sawyer Burt, Samuel Hotalen, Kevin Hightower, Brody Bruce and Will Cathey.
Elmore added that it really hurt to lost a player like Winchester.
“It’s just a really tough situation,” Elmore said. “You feel for anyone that gets hurt and we had a lot of guys go down last year. I don’t mean to take anything away from them at all, but I’ve told [Donald] that I’ve never coached a kid quite like him. I’ve coached a lot of players and a lot of really good kids, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had that combination of a really, really good player and a super kid who is respectful, never says a lot and works as hard as he can at everything we do. We just feel for him with it being his senior year. He was primed to have a great year and he’s been disappointed obviously.
“He’s handled it as well as anyone can handle it and has taken the attitude that he’s going to come back from this and is going to play football somewhere someday. We’ll rely on what he did in his junior year film wise and try to talk to as many people as we can and get him that opportunity, because he’s the kind of kid that deserves it.“
The Wildcats hope that Winchester can show good signs of recovery from his surgery over the next few weeks and can still be an asset to his teammates this year by encouraging them and sharing his experiences from the sidelines.
The Wildcats will debut their new-look backfield in front of a home crowd on Aug. 23 when they kickoff their 2019 campaign against the Pell City Panthers.