Entering Smith’s fifth season on The Hill, expectations have returned to the level the Panthers enjoyed in their 5A days under Smith’s mentor, Mike Battles.
With expectations, however, comes mastering them, and Smith wants his latest Wellborn team to handle expectations like a team that’s been there and plans to stay. His words ring a lot like those of another coach in Alabama.
“How we do at the end of the year? We’ve just got to keep working and improve each and every day,” Smith said. “We’re trying this year not to constantly talk about ‘state championship, state championship, state championship.’
“The goal is to win the state championship. Let’s make sure we remember that, but what we’re trying to do now is take each day at a time and improve each day at a time, each week at a time and each opponent at a time.”
There are reasons for Wellborn’s ranking. The Panthers finished 2012 with a 9-3 record, losing to eventual state champion Tanner in the second round of the playoffs. They return speed backs Kevin Mixon and Chantz Goodman and will play their key 2A, Region 6 game against No. 10 Woodland at home.
Then again, they lost 18 seniors. They have only 30 players, down from 40, with just five seniors. They lost seven starters on defense and five on offense, most notably quarterback Judd Smith.
For the first four years that his father has coached at Wellborn, Judd ran his dad’s misdirection system like a true point guard in basketball. He would feed the ball to Mixon, Goodman and fullback Landon Machristie or keep it. When defenses played up, the smallish Judd would hit them with a pass.
He didn’t put up big passing numbers, but Wellborn put up points in bunches.
“I will never have another quarterback that is as knowledgeable as he was at what we do,” Jeff Smith said.
Enter Machristie, a junior who has been working toward this day and worked a lot with Judd Smith over the summer. Machristie also brings different dimensions.
As a fullback, his size and speed made him devastating to defenses that overcommitted to stopping Mixon and Goodman on the outside. Machristie rushed for 221 yards in Wellborn’s playoff victory over Horseshoe Bend.
Those same attributes make Machristie a devastating middle linebacker on defense. He projects as a linebacker in college.
“Landon is one of these players who is going to be good anywhere you put him,” Jeff Smith said. “He would be good at quarterback. He would be good at fullback. He would be good at a running back. He’s a good linebacker.
“He’s just a good athlete who can play any position.”
As a quarterback, Machristie also brings the big arm, which brings the passing game more into play. It’s not hard to see Wellborn using more shotgun formations and read-option football this year, utilizing Machristie as a Tim Tebow-like player.
“We’ve been, I feel like, spreading out a little more,” Machristie said. “We’ve been doing more working on pass plays and doing a little bit of option, a lot of read plays for me to give it to Chantz or Kevin or I’ll run with it.”
If teams overplay Machristie, Goodman and Mixon can make them pay with proven speed. Goodman, the senior between the two speedsters, has run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and, at 165 pounds, can bench press 335.
Wellborn has no shortage of offensive weapons and a system that keeps defenses guessing. That’s been true for four years, as Smith has lifted the Panthers out of lean times.
Now, the challenge becomes handling boom times.
“Everybody’s pumped about it, but it’s still in the back of our minds that everybody’s gunning for us,” Machristie said.
Wellborn got a lesson in handling success a year ago. The Panthers beat highly regarded Fultondale in a key region game but were humbled by Fyffe the next week.
“We went through about a three-week span there where we had to go back and find ourselves again,” Smith said.
He hopes the Panthers don’t forget that experience heading into a year they start with high expectations.
“We went from being everybody’s homecoming game to, now, a lot of people are gunning for us,” Smith said. “That’s a credit to all the hard work these players and these assistant coaches have done around here to get us to that point.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star. Wellborn at a glance Head coach: Jeff Smith (103-74 in 17 seasons, 27-19 entering fifth season at Wellborn).
Last year’s record: 9-3, including 6-1 and second-place finish in Class 2A, Region 6. Lost in second round of the state playoffs to Tanner.
Outlook: Wellborn enters this season with its highest expectations since Smith returned to his alma mater in 2009, ranked No. 4 in 2A in the preseason ASWA poll. There’s good reason, including the return of running backs Kevin Mixon and Chantz Goodman, and the Panthers get No. 10 Woodland at home in a key region game. But the Panthers also lost quarterback Judd Smith, who knew and ran his dad’s system like, well, he was raised on it. Quarterback heir Landon Machristie brings size and speed, which he used well at fullback, and a strong arm to enhance the passing dimension in Wellborn’s offense.
Aug. 24, vs. Straughn*
Aug. 30, vs. Saks
Sept. 6, at Vincent #
Sept. 13, vs. Victory Christian #
Sept. 20, at Fultondale #
Sept. 27, at Fyffe
Oct. 4, vs. Ohatchee #
Oct. 11, vs. Woodland #
Oct. 18, at Ranburne #
Oct. 25, at Pleasant Valley #
Nov. 1, vs. Weaver
* -- Champions Challenge, Aug. 24, 5 p.m. at Cramton Bowl, Montgomery.