Portland football coach Greg Cavanah seemed cautiously optimistic that his team can build off its 6-5 record and 4A playoff appearance from last year.

Part of that optimism stems from the fact that this year’s team is physically bigger than past teams, according to Cavanah.

“It’ll probably be one the bigger teams that I’ve put on the field since I got to Portland,” Cavanah said. “We’ve gotten taller and a little bit bigger, size-wise.”

Portland recently completed spring practice and will soon begin summer workouts ahead of its Aug. 23 season opener at Edmonson County (Ky.). The Panthers return a total of 19 lettermen from last year’s squad.

“If we can build some depth and injuries stay away, I think we can improve on last year’s record,” Cavanah said. “The kids have worked hard in the weight room, and they’ve made themselves a little bit better athletes.”

The Panthers graduated a few key defensive players, including linebackers Joshua Kobe Dutcher and Isaiah Mason and defensive back Bryson Dowlen, but they return nearly their entire offense.

That includes senior quarterback Caleb Mandrell, who can make plays with his arm and his feet. He rushed for 1,488 yards and 23 touchdowns last year, while also passing for 399 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“I thought he really blossomed last year,” Cavanah said. “He didn’t throw as much as some college coaches would want to see, but he didn’t have to because he ran the ball so well.”

Cavanah said several college programs have expressed interest in Mandrell, especially on defense.

“You’re going to see him play some defense this year,” Cavanah said. “We haven’t been afforded the opportunity to play him there because he’s been the starting quarterback, but he’ll see some time in the defensive secondary.”

Mandrell should have plenty of weapons to assist him on offense. Devyn Fuqua is projected to be the starting fullback, while basketball player Darius Bell has joined the team and will play split end. Dylan Gulley and Cade Box will also see time in the back field.

“When you put good people around a good athlete [Mandrell] who makes good decisions, then good things happen for you,” Cavanah said.

However, the Panthers play five of their first six contests on the road. That means they’ll have to rely on their experienced offense while the younger defense gets up to speed. 

Portland will make the nearly two-hour trek to Forrest on Aug. 30, before hosting Montgomery Central on Sept. 6. The Panthers then have three consecutive road games at Greenbrier, West Creek and White House Heritage. 

“If you’re going to make a run in the playoffs, you’re going to have to travel some,” Cavanah said. “That’s just the way the schedule falls out.”

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