The Oakland reloading period will continue in 2012.
A year after going 6-5 with a loss to Mt. Juliet in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs, the Patriots return just six total full-time starters — three on each side of the ball.
But unlike a year ago when the Patriots reloaded with seniors ready to make their first key contributions, this year’s team will do it with a talented sophomore and junior class. Oakland could start as many as five juniors and four sophomores on offense this season. On defense, six juniors potentially could start with two sophomores.
Juniors Emmanuel Smith and Fred Wade lead the offensive skilled positions as both could have breakout seasons.
Wade, a running back, rushed for 590 yards with six touchdowns on 82 carries last season. His role expands this season as he will be the featured back along with junior Eric Abernathy, who got a handful of carries last season.
Travon Willis, who rumbled for 548 yards as a junior provides a powerful run option as well.
Oakland coach Thomas McDaniel has spoken highly of Wade’s leadership this season. He could be in line for a big season.
Smith split time at quarterback last season. When healthy, Smith provided another elusive player in the backfield. He rushed for 259 yards on just 38 carries in limited time. He also completed 4 of 11 passes for 71 yards.
Smith, who will also start at free safety, is expected to be backed up by Rhett Stacey.
“There is quite a bit of carry over from our base offense from a year ago,” McDaniel said. “But we have changed some things schematically to gear it more to what he does well.
“You will see us in the shotgun more and more spread out and give him more space to do things he do well. He’s a dual-threat quarterback. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s elusive, and he can throw the ball a mile.”
“We’ve got too many running backs,” McDaniel said. “Fred is going to be our featured back. Everybody knows that. Honestly, Eric Abernathy is just as capable as anyone else. Fred’s the guy.
“He’s very unselfish. He doesn’t complain about how many reps he gets in practice.”
The run game will only blossom if the Patriots’ offensive line continues to make progress. Three of five starters return from last year’s lineup. Seniors Nathan Robinette and Christian Weldy provide leadership on the line.
Receivers Tyler Black, Billy Hunter, Sam Hawkins and Kyle Oliver all will be looked to make plays in the pass game.
Perhaps the most important improvement to the Patriots was on the defensive line.
Defensive ends Curtis Gaines and Dywon Boyd will be key factors at improving the athleticism of the defensive line along with Siegel transfer Davonte Johnson. Austin Barrett’s strength at tackle will demand attention.
“Our offseason this past season was tremendous,” McDaniel said. “We’re stronger than we’ve ever been. It’s not even comparable strength wise. And that’s probably most noticeable on the defensive front.”