‘Little Things Matter’

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Pictured above: #2, senior defensive back Jarell Stinson, head coach Eric Speakman (middle), #5 senior linebacker/running back Taylor Love (right) PHOTO BY ROBERT NOLES / OPELIKA OBSERVER

Experienced Opelika Looks to Make Improvements Prior to Region Play

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com

The Bulldogs were last but not least. That is, in terms of teams speaking to the media at High School Media Days last Wednesday at the Bottling Plant Event Center in Opelika.

Fourth year Opelika head coach Eric Speakman took the stand with players Jarell Stinson and Taylor Love to discuss the team’s outlook this season.

“I have really high expectations for the team this year,” Stinson, a senior defensive back, said. “If we can focus this year and get everything together, we can be really good.”

Stinson is a three-star prospect according to 247’s composite ranking, and Love does not have a composite score, but is rated a three-star prospect by other metrics. Although the two have played mostly defense for Opelika, Speakman said he plans to get creative with his senior leaders this season.

“Having a player like Jarell just makes the life of coach easier,” he said. “We’re going to use him a lot on offense this year. We’ve got to figure out a way to put up points using a different variety of players. Having both of them is going to be big for us this year.”

The Bulldogs have made it to at least the third round of the playoffs in six straight years, three of those under Speakman. This year, with the return of spring and summer practice – and the addition of some new, alumni staff members – Speakman and his players are confident in their chances to outperform the results of seasons prior.

“We had a really great offseason,” Speakman said. “We’ve got a really tough schedule as always, but all that does is prepare us for what we see in the playoffs.”

Opelika begins its seasons on Aug. 20 against class 2A Georgia State Champion, Callaway High School. The next week they play AHSAA class 7A state runner-up, and innate rival, Auburn High School.

“Which is obviously a huge game for us here in this area,” Speakman said of the cross-town Tigers. “We will always play tough people and try to get our kids ready to play in the postseason, using our regular season non-region opponents as that test.”

Adding to the challenges, Opelika enters its season with many question marks – namely on offense. The Bulldogs are in the midst of a four-man quarterback competition to replace last year’s starter, JT McArdle.

“If we had to play tomorrow, we would play all four of them,” Speakman said.

The more pressing matter, however, is the offensive line. The Bulldogs have to replace seven senior offensive linemen who departed from last year’s team.

“The most important positions, not always the best, are your offensive line and quarterbacks. And that’s our biggest question marks,” Speakman said. “We got some good kids coming back, they just don’t have a lot of experience.”

While the Bulldogs might lack experience in some areas, 35 seniors make up a good portion of the 104-man squad.

“These guys have a lot of playing experience for us over the last four years,” Speakman said.

One under-classmen to look out for, however, is  6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound ninth grade offensive lineman, Malik Autry.

“We expect a lot out of him,” Speakman said. “He definitely has the frame that those college coaches like. He works really hard. He didn’t shy away from anything in the spring. You will definitely see him this fall.”

Overall, the mix of youthful and experienced players on this Bulldog team are striving to reach their first state championship since 2016.

“I’m pretty sure we can go all the way this year,” Love said.

To do so, they will have to gain experience and confidence while navigating a difficult front end of the schedule.

“These guys, they have worked hard all summer,” Speakman said. “But right now, our main goal is to start off really good after Callaway, fix the mistakes after that, play a really good Auburn team and then, after that, we get into region play where you kind of set the tone for your real season.”

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