By Morgan Bryce
Heading into the 2018 football season, excitement abounds for Opelika High School’s Erik Speakman as he prepares for his first season at the helm of the Bulldogs’ program.
Speakman, who has been a member of the Opelika coaching staff since 2000, was hired Feb. 21 to replace Caleb Ross, who departed after one season with the Bulldogs to return to his alma mater, Prattville.
“This job is a lot of fun. Being a head coach is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Speakman said. “It’s a lot of fun, but I tell people, ‘hey, it’s better than going to work.”
Following is unit-by-unit breakdown of the Bulldogs, with key departures and newcomers to watch as the season approaches.
Per Speakman’s defensive background, expect the Bulldogs to rely heavily on the legs of their four running backs: senior Brantan Barnett, Kani Kellum, Naetavious Evans and Eric Watts.
However, the strong-armed Cade Blackmon, son of former Opelika coach Brian Blackmon, will be able to put pressure on opposing secondaries this fall, according to Speakman.
“With Cade, you got a coach’s kid playing quarterback, someone who loves the game and is very good. I feel like he’s going to put up really big numbers because of our strong running game,” Speakman said. “It’s hard to defend sideline-to-sideline. What Cade gives us and presents to other defenses is a strong arm that can throw it across the field.”
The receivers are young, but upperclassmen like Jaquel Burdette, Jaylin Cummins and Jamius Mitchell will provide experience, height and speed to the position.
On the offensive line, monster guard DeAndre Butler is gone, but the Bulldogs will return plenty of bulk and muscle with tackles Kameron Hughley and Blake Landers, as well as guards James Dawson and Caleb Eason.
Several key contributors depart from one of last season’s top defenses in the state.
Six-foot, 1-inch noseguard Travis Hambrick will anchor the interior of Bulldog’s defensive line, but with Speakman’s aggressive rotation strategy, several other players including Wanya Boler, Contavious Gullatte, Cameron Reese, Parker Rogers and Cameron Torbert will be counted on to plug gaps and provide a consistent pass rush.
The secondary loses quality corners Justin Lewis and Jamias Presley, but Speakman said he believes last year’s linebacker corps will step up while the back four grow and develop.
“Our linebackers last year were our young kids, so they will be the leaders this year. Jaquan Foote, Tekael Demunn will be seniors that should lead us,” Speakman said. “Corban Nunn, though, will be moved from linebacker to defensive line, because we want the best 11 (players) to be on the field at all times.”
Punting and kicking duties are still mostly undecided for Opelika this year. Speakman said Marshall Meyers is slated for kickoff duties after a solid spring game and consistent performance during summer practices.
All other units, including kick/punt return, field goal, kickoff coverage/return and punt coverage/return, will be determined in the early weeks of fall practice, according to Speakman.
Opelika’s schedule consists of nine games this season. Because of undisclosed reasons, Greenville dropped out of its Sept. 28 against the Bulldogs, leaving them one game short of the regular 10 most AHSAA teams schedule.
With a combined 77-32 overall record and eight out of the nine teams they face being playoff teams from last season, Speakman said the mid-season bye week will be key, coming between a home tilt against Central of Phenix City and road trip to Benjamin Russell.
“It’ll (the Sept. 28 bye) be good chance to give our guys a much-needed rest and get their feet up under their legs. That will be big for us, given the first few games we’ll have to start the year,” Speakman said.
The Bulldogs will play four home games and five games on the road. Below is their full schedule.
Aug. 24 – @ Callaway
Aug. 31- @ Auburn
Sept. 7- v. Selma
Sept. 14 – @ Wetumpka
Sept. 21 – v. Central
Oct. 5 – @ Benjamin Russell
Oct. 12- @ Calera
Oct. 19 – v. Stanhope Elmore
Oct. 26 – v. Vigor.
Working alongside stellar coaches like UMS-Wright’s Terry Curtis, and Opelika’s Spence McCracken, Blackmon and Ross, Speakman said he believes he will be able to take what he has learned and employ that to continue Opelika’s gridiron dominance.
“The biggest thing I want my kids to do is give it their all every play. Our kids always do that, and I think that’s the one thing you can ask anyone who’s watched us play the last 10-15 years, and their takeaway would be, ‘wow, those kids play hard,’” Speakman said.
For more information or to Opelika football updates, visit www.opelikaathletics.com.