Derby entered the 2013 football season as the favorite to win the Class 6A title. The Panthers did just that, winning their final 12 games for their first title since 1994.
There are no such expectations placed on Derby this season. Not with an entirely new offense and a mere two starters in defensive end Chase Branstetter and linebacker Dan Conner.
Yet Derby’s far from in a rebuilding mode. This program is too strong from top to bottom to have that happen. But there will be some growing pains.
“Our expectations have always been high,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said. “They’re still really high. They’ve got that itch now. It’s a lot of new faces. But our freshmen did a really good job, went undefeated. Our (junior varsity) lost one game. They’re used to winning.”
The defense, which gave up about 10 points per game during its 12-game win streak, will be undersized — most of the players are at 200 pounds or less — but fast and physical.
Branstetter is strong and one of the defense’s biggest players (220 pounds). The Panthers added Darreon Jackson, a big-hitting safety who moved in from Texas.
“We’ll have to lean on defense and special teams,” Clark said. “Last year we had the luxury, were highly disappointed, if we didn’t score each drive. This year we have to be patient, hopefully stay in the ballgame with defense.”
The offense is where the bulk of Derby’s inexperience is, and that could be an issue in the Panthers’ season-opening game at Maize. Derby beat Maize 62-13 in 2013, but Maize’s experienced, high-powered offense will put pressure on the Panthers to put up points in response.
Clark has been adamant, though, that his team’s focus is on improving through the first six games, and then winning Class 6A-District 7.
The offense will be fine, though. Junior Garrett Xanders is quick and earned plenty of experienced while filling in while four-year starter Tyler West recuperated from an injury. The Panthers add senior Curtis Whitten, who transferred from Heights. Whitten, who’s quick and physical, had more than 700 rushing yards in 2012 with the Falcons but suffered a knee injury in the 2013 season opener.
Then there’s junior Brady Rust, who takes over at quarterback.
“He’s pretty quick and pretty fast,” Clark said. “We’ve just got to get his confidence level up. He’s really good when he’s confident. He’s been playing with us for a long, long time, and he’s coming off an injury in basketball.
“Once he figures out what he can do, his confidence will skyrocket.”
Clark expects the same to be true for the rest of the team as they gain experience.
TOP SKILL PLAYERS
|Sept. 5||at Maize|
|Sept. 12||Salina Central|
|Sept. 19||Mill Valley|
|Sept. 26||at Hutchinson|
|Oct. 3||at Newton|
|Oct. 10||Salina South|
|Oct. 17||at Campus|
|Oct. 24||at Wichita South|
Nate Crossman on his team