Offensively, Murphy graduated quarterback Ryan Ramsey and running back James Hall, two players who were instrumental in executing coach Ronn Lee's spread offense the last couple of years. Ramsey will walk on at Jacksonville State this fall. Hall has signed with Birmingham-Southern.
Filling the void under center is senior quarterback Jamari Brady, a 6-foot, 163-pound duel threat. Brady played wide receiver last year but was the Panthers' back-up quarterback and saw a little bit of playing time in several Murphy blowouts. This year, the Panthers are his team to lead.
"He has really taken the role over in the way you want," coach Lee said. "He spends a lot of time talking to me and the coaches as far as leadership and what we expect from him. He had a tremendous spring. He really stepped up, and I thought he threw the ball extremely well."
"At first, everyone says 'He's too light. He's too light.' But when they come see him they see that he's pretty good at what he does," Lee said. "Jamari has the ability to get the ball to his receivers. We're a spread team, and I think what he adds is whenever he pulls the ball down he's dangerous. He's not afraid to run between the tackles."
Joining Brady in the backfield is running back Henry Hunter, another player Lee feels has accepted his role as a senior leader. At 5-6 and 155, Hunter doesn't have the body most colleges look for, but Lee says what he lacks in size he more than makes up for it in heart and hustle. Hunter is getting looks from Louisville and Louisiana Tech.
"He's a hard runner, and he's very strong for his size," Lee said. "He saw the field quite a bit last year with James when we went to a two-back set, so it's not like he's never played before. He should be a good back for us."
The Panthers have an entirely new receiving corps this year, as last year's top four wideouts are all gone. Michael Poellnitz (6-0, 170) is moving to receiver from the secondary, while Johnny Seals (5-10, 151) and Solomon Patton (5-10, 156) round out the group.
Patton is just a sophomore, but he's a track star who Lee says runs a legitimate 4.3 in the 40-yard dash. "Before everything's said and done, I think Solomon will be a great player," Lee said.
Offensive line is a strength for Murphy this year. Senior right tackle Justin Daniels is the best of the bunch and lost about 30 pounds this off-season. Now at 6-2 and 295, Lee says this could be a break-out year for Daniels.
"His size was somewhat of a deterrent as far as movement," Lee said. "He never had any trouble blocking anyone on the line of scrimmage, but chasing down those linebackers wasn't always easy for him. I don't think that'll be a problem this year.
"Justin's probably our overall offensive leader. He understands that for us to be a good football team we have to be good up front. He's really rallied those guys together."
Center Kyle Johnson (5-10, 250) and guard Maurice Cook (5-8, 260) will also line up in the trenches, but Lee says the other positions are still up for grabs.
On the defensive side of the ball, it all starts with linebacker Jacoby Thomas, who at 6-foot and 200 pounds has the tools to make it big. He's quick, he's smart and he flat-out knows where the ball is and where it's going to go next.
"The one thing I can say about Jacoby is his motor never stops running," Lee said. "He's one of those guys that if you've got the football you're going to get hit. When we do 7-on-7 drills we have to tell him not to hit anybody because it's for the offense. That's not anything against Jacoby, it's just the way he plays."
"There's not a lot of difference in the way Jacoby practices and plays," Lee said. "He plays at the same pace no matter what. The player you see on Friday night is the same player I deal with on Monday morning."
Last year, Thomas teamed with Eric Harris and Jimmie Smith to form one of the most talented linebacking trios in the state. But Harris and Smith are gone, and stepping in this year are seniors Julius O'Neal (5-8, 183) and Quinton Balams (6-0, 180).
O'Neal backed up Harris the last two years and Balams put on about 15 pounds and is ready to go inside, Lee said.
Defensive line is somewhat of a question mark for the Panthers at this point, as defensive end Tyler Miller (6-2, 195) is the only player to shore up a spot. The rest of the positions are still up in the air.
"We don't have a lot of size up front," Lee said. "We have three down linemen and in the course of a Friday night we'll probably play about eight people. That's because we're not very big. We try to put as much speed out there as we can."
Murphy has been strong in the secondary recently but returns only one starter this year in junior cornerback Andrew Jackson (5-8, 170). He is joined by sophomore free safety Harlos Brand (6-0, 160) and senior linebacker Jordan Brand (5-9, 150), who will drop back in coverage when the Panthers go into two-deep coverage.
Overall, Murphy will look for good things in 2007. Lee knows it is not an easy road to travel through a stout 6A Region 1 that includes perennial powers such as McGill-Toolen and Davidson. Still, he feels the Panthers have the talent. It's just a matter of how quickly the players come together.
"As coaches, we feel like if we can keep getting the effort we have a chance to be pretty good," Lee said. "We try to be realistic with a touch of optimism. We might not win them all, but we'll represent Murphy well."
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