South Mecklenburg's depth chart is far from set. With 21 seniors leaving, players moving up from junior varsity and students from the recently closed Waddell High School joining the team, few positions have been decided in the offseason.
"We still have a lot of gaps to fill, and I guess that's why you do 7-on-7s and conditioning," said coach James Martin, who is in his sixth year leading the Sabres. "You've got to see who's got some speed and who's got some strength and see where you can plug people. It's kind of like a chess match right now."
The Sabres finished 7-5 last year (4-3 Southwestern 4A) and third in the conference, losing to Ardrey Kell 35-10 in the first round of the state playoffs. To get farther this year, the Sabres will be relying on an experienced offensive line.
South Meck returns the entire starting offensive line from last year - seniors Casey Blaser (All-SW4A and verbally committed to Duke), Logan Mims and Santario Alston, and juniors Danny Gonzalez and Brandon Floyd - which is important for a team that ran for more than 300 yards in a game several times last year.
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"Things should speed up even faster with the line as far as their comprehension and understanding and ability just to work as a team," said Martin. "They know each other and that builds and helps everyone else run a whole lot smoother."
The Sabres did lose some of their skill position players to graduation, all-conference running back Corwin Moore (893 yards, 11 touchdowns) and running back Michael Campbell (754 yards, seven touchdowns).
Senior back Adam Nix (579 yards, six touchdowns) will carry most of the load in the option-based offense, but expect to see senior Jeff Pugsley get carries as a full back as well as Waddell transfers sophomore Tanarus Henry and senior Jeff Gyobt.
Senior Adrian Smith, another Waddell transfer, could also see time at fullback.
"He has a lot of giddy up and go, which is what we like. He's done everything we've asked so far," said Martin.
The Sabres expected to have junior quarterback Chase Ferguson starting for the third straight year, but he transferred to Providence Day in the offseason. Martin wouldn't comment on the details of the move.
The Sabres have another junior quarterback, Alex Adams, ready to step into the role. The 6-foot-1 Adams started on the JV team the last two years. The JV team averaged more than 27 points per game last year, said Martin.
"I like Alex," said Martin. "He's a strong runner for a quarterback. ... He's got a lot more quickness in him than our other quarterback in the past."
With some experienced athletes and a quarterback who knows the system, the Sabres might start spreading things out and throwing the ball a little more this year, said Martin.
Juniors C.J. Thompson and Fostaire Stephens will be the main threats at wide receiver for the Sabres.
Defensively, things are even less settled.
Junior Sam Bramlett (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) will anchor the defensive line. Bramlett had surgery last year after hurting his hand in the season opener against Charlotte Catholic and returned for the Myers Park game.
"He did a great job coming back," said Martin. "There was a huge difference when he got back in. We're expecting him to really carry the load on the D-line."
Alston was also an all-conference defensive lineman for the Sabres last year.
There are still questions at linebacker with the graduation of players like John Chamberlain (All-SW4A), said Martin, but he plans to use Stephens, Thompson and junior Malik Smith in the secondary.
"We've got a hodgepodge," said Martin. "Like I said it's a chess match, it's early. We've got all these scenarios but it's just not ... cut and dry. It's hard."
The Sabres may still be trying to figure things out this summer, but Martin knows that in the competitive Southwestern 4A the team has to be ready come August.
"You can't screw up this year," he said. "You screw up, you're going to be at the bottom very quickly. ... Everybody's going to say that Butler's going to be head and shoulders above everyone else and that's fine, they can say that. ... You've got to show up to play on Friday. If you mess up, you're going to lose."