Manila returns virtually its entire roster from last season's 1-9 squad, with great expectations as the Lions enter their second year of Friday night football.
(Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)
The Lions strength lies in their offensive and defensive lines, anchored by all-conference performer Zach Birmingham, a 6'1" 315 lb. senior who plays offensive guard and defensive tackle. Birmingham will team with left tackle Jeremy Goff, a 6'0" 295 lb. junior, forming one of the best interior line tandems in the 3A-3 conference.
The defensive end spots will be manned by Nick Bryan, a 5'9" 160 lb. junior who started last season, and Shaun McCallie, a 5'7" 180 lb. junior. The Lions return their entire linebacking core, all seniors. The outside linebackers are Drew Byford, a 6'2" 220 pounder, and Steven Green, 5'9" 190 pounds. The middle linebacker is Seth Towles, 5'9" 220 pounds. John Jones, a 5'9" 170 lb. junior transfer from Georgia, gives Manila added depth at the linebacker position.
"We feel really good about our linebackers," said Doke. "They have a lot of experience and will be one of our team's strengths."
The secondary starts with Manila's fastest player, 6'5" 165 lb. senior speedster John Wilbanks, who runs a 4.4 forty. Wilbanks will handle the left cornerback spot. Jared Burks will be the other corner. Burks is a 6'0" 175 lb. senior who also started last season. Dillon Burrow and Brian Borden will be the starting safeties. Burrow is a 5'9" 165 lb. sophomore who runs a 4.5, while Borden, a junior, comes in at 5'8" 145 lbs.
"We have good size and plenty of speed defensively," said Doke. "We really think we have the makings of an excellent defense."
Birmingham anchors the Lion's offensive line at left guard and will be joined by Goff, who will handle the right guard spot, giving Manila a pair of very strong blockers. Manila will receive a huge boost this season, as 6'0" 190 lb. senior center Lance Kilbreath returns. Kimbreath saw his season end prematurely last year when he suffered a broken ankle in the Lion's second game of the year.
Dale Butterworth, a 6'2" 200 lb. senior, starts at left tackle, while the right tackle position will be handled by Seth Towles.
"We feel really good about our offensive line," said Doke. "We have a lot of experience there as well as some good depth." Nick Bryan, a 5'9" 160 lb. junior, and Drew Byford are expected to back up the starters. Both Bryan and Byford saw action last season. Other linemen include Briar Moore, a 6'1" 215 lb. senior, Derek Stutts, a 5'8" 185 lb. junior, and a pair of sophomores, 5'8" 185 lb. Justin Barley and Damon Clapp, a 5'7" 165 pounder.
The Lions will have plenty of offensive weapons this season, starting with John Wilbanks, who rushed for over 400 yards last year, including a 65-yard touchdown gallop in Manila's victory over Rector. Wilbanks is the inside A-back and will get plenty of carries as well as a lot of opportunities for pass receptions. The two outside receivers are returning starters Jared Burks and Spencer Cain, while all-purpose running back Brian Borden gives the Lions another dangerous threat. Tucker Miller, a 5'9" 155 lb. sophomore, adds more depth to the running back position.
The Lions boast a pair of rugged runners in senior Steven Green and junior Shawn McCallie, who will man the fullback position. Green, the returning starter, has good speed and rushed for over 425 yards last season. "Our fullback play will be huge this year," said Doke. "Both Green and McCallie are good inside running threats."
Josh Miles, a 5'10" 175 lb. senior, returns as the starting quarterback and will share time with sophomore Dillon Burrow, who started last season for the Junior Lions. "Miles and Burrow both had great summers at the quarterback camps they attended," said Doke. "They held their own with about 45-50 other quarterbacks that were there. They have really improved their footwork and their reads. Both players have gained a lot of arm strength. Burrow is a dual threat type quarterback while Miles has lots of experience and is a real good reader of defenses. Miles is very accurate with his throws while Burrow probably has the stronger arm."
Birmingham will handle all the place kicking duties for Manila while Shane Lee and Lance Kilbreath are in a battle for the punting job. Spencer Cain will handle the duties of holder while either Kilbreath or Burrow will man the deep snapper spot.
"I think offensively we'll have a chance to make a lot of big plays," said Doke. "We have a year of Friday night experience under our belt, which should make a big difference. We depended so much on Wilbanks last year, but this year we will have a lot more help, especially with the addition of Burrow in the backfield."
"I think we will surprise some folks this year," said Doke. "We are going to take one game at a time. The first three non-conference games will be a big key for us before we start conference play. I think we have a shot at the playoffs, which is a goal of ours. That would be really big for our program. We're in a very tough league and it will be a big challenge, but the kids are hungry and I think they're up to it. We are anxious to get going. We have a great group of seniors and a good core of young players I am very proud of this group of seniors. They will always have a special part of my heart. They were the group that started this program, and I would love for them to have some success this season. They really deserve it. These 11 seniors mean the world to me."