Football Panthers will be tested often during 2018

The Knox Central High School football team finalized its schedule for the 2018 season and there is no shortage of top-tier teams on the horizon for the Panthers.

After playing on the road for five straight weeks to start the 2017 season, Knox Central kicks off its 2018 season at home and travels no further than Corbin during the first three weeks before a long road trip to Green County in week four.

The Panthers first game will be a tough one with Letcher County Central scheduled to visit Barbourville on August 17. The Cougars were winless a year ago against a very tough schedule, but did give Knox Central all it could handle in the season-opener before falling 27-20. Letcher lost just seven seniors from that squad and have a large junior class of 16 moving up to lead the way, guaranteeing the Cougars to be much-improved.

Knox Central will then be featured in one of the state’s best games on August 25 when the Panthers face Tennessee powerhouse Alcoa High School at 5 p.m. in the Cumberland Falls Pigskin Classic at Corbin High School. Alcoa won its third straight state championship in 2017 and has won 16 championships, the most of any team in Tennessee. The team is coached by Gary Rankin, the state’s all-time winningest high school football coach, who has guided the team to 13 championships in his storied career.

Knox Central will then be at home in week three for what is expected to be another knock-down, drag-out battle with familiar foe Harlan County. While Knox Central has won four straight against Harlan County, the Black Bears won a region championship last year and were seven points shy of making it to the state championship game. But 22 players graduated from that squad, which lost 43-23 versus the Panthers a year ago.

A long road trip of nearly three hours awaits in week four when Knox Central travels to Greenburg, a small town near Elizabethtown and Bowling Green to face Green County. The Dragons traveled to Barbourville a year ago and played Knox Central in the Bingham Tire Bowl, a game the Panthers were in complete control of from the opening kickoff on the way to a 50-8 win. Eleven players are gone from that Green County squad.

Knox Central will dip into district play starting in week five when Russell County comes to town on Sept. 21. The Lakers lost 14 players from a team that missed the playoffs a year ago, so the team is expected to be hungry, but inexperienced. Knox Central barely escaped a trip to Russell County a year ago with 34-27 victory.

A trip to Clay County for another important district game awaits the Panthers in week six. Clay County came to Barbourville a year ago expecting to give the Panthers a run for their money. But after a slow start, Knox Central ran away with it, 36-8. With 13 players gone from that team due to graduation, improvement will be a tall task for the Tigers.

Wayne County, the defending district champion that went on to win region and advance to the state semifinals a year ago, will travel to Knox Central on Oct. 5 in what is very likely to be the district championship once again The Cardinals have been a thorn in Knox Central’s side for years, and are expected to be again in 2018. But it won’t be as easy for Wayne County after losing 15 seniors to graduation.

Knox Central will be back on the road the following week for an Oct. 12 showdown with Franklin County in Frankfort. The Flyers lost 30-0 versus Knox Central last year, the only time all season the team was held scoreless. Only seven seniors departed from that team, with the bulk of the skilled positions returning.

Always one of the best teams on Knox Central’s schedule, Rockcastle County remains a district contender and a serious threat to the Panthers despite finding themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard 10 of the last 11 meetings between the two. Reversing that trend does not look likely with 15 seniors graduated from a team that fell 36-8 to Knox Central a year ago.

And while it has absolutely no post-season ramifications, October 26 will likely be marked on calendars more than any other game by Knox Central fans as the Panthers host heated-rival Corbin in both teams’ regular-season finale. Corbin defeated the Panthers 36-21 a year ago on the way to a runner-up finish in Class 3A. Ten players graduated from that team and multiple other players have transferred, giving the game hope for a masterpiece.

At the completion of the regular-season, Knox Central is expected, and very likely, to enter the playoffs as a top contender for the regional championship. The Panthers were 8-4 a year ago and won their first-round playoff game.

Leading rusher Jermel Carton (1,263 yards) is gone from that team, but sophomore-to-be Ethan Mills returns as one of the state’s best second-year players. He rushed for 644 yards on 91 carries while scoring nine touchdowns a year ago while playing second-fiddle to Carton.

Brady Worley, another sophomore-to-be, also returns after passing for 1,706 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. He is a player that is expected to be very well known by the end of the upcoming season.

With Worley’s strong, accurate arm, the Panthers will need a strong receiving corps, and they have that and then some. Nick Martin is one of the state’s best wide outs after hauling down 52 receptions for 792 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. Kevionte Turner is giving him a strong push with 39 catches for 596 yards.

Dane Imel (17 catches, 300 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Jacob Barnard (13 catches, 139 yards, 1 touchdown) have proven very capable lining up wide for the Panthers.

And then there is Knox Central’s wild card, Blevin Campbell. Capable of playing pretty much every skilled position on the team and starring at it, Campbell is expected to see the most action as a receiver. But Panther fans should not be surprised to see him in the backfield, possibly even under center, depending on the situation. The senior-to-be rushed for 195 yards, passed for 537 and two touchdowns, while catching 12 passes for 195 yards and another touchdown last season. And he may have been even better on defense and special teams while scoring five more touchdowns.

Tucker Holland will be back to lead the defense and comes into the season as one of the state’s best talents. He led the team with 143 tackles a year ago, including 110 solo stops. He also scooped up six fumbles, returning one for a touchdown.

Turner is also expected to be a force defensively for the Panthers after making 74 stops a year ago, including 54 solos. The junior-to-be intercepted four passes a year ago, returning two of them for scores. He also picked up one fumble.

Imel, who led the team with seven picks last year, and Trace Floyd, who had one interception that he returned for a touchdown, lead a slew of other talented players that are expected to play major roles on the defensive side of the ball.

Stay tuned to future issues of The Mountain Advocate as we continue our preseason football coverage throughout the summer before the release of our 2018 Fall Sports Preview in August.