CumberlandFootball

The 2021 Cumberland Pirates.

Since taking over as head coach of the Cumberland football program in 2015, Lucas Watkins has continually improved his team into one that shows consistency in the win-loss column.

After his first year saw the Pirates finish 5-4, all Watkins has done since is help lead his team to the state playoffs in each of the last five seasons.

Now, coming off the heels of a 2020 spring season that saw his team show promise, he is expecting nothing less this time around.

"We're hoping to have a good year, based on what we have coming back," Watkins said. "We have quite a few kids back from last spring's campaign that got a lot of experience.

"I thought we played well for not having a lot of seniors. We had four seniors, and two didn't even really play because they got hurt, so I was glad to see the young kids, the juniors, step up, along with some of the sophomores, and kind of rise to the occasion, and have a successful season."

Even though Cumberland doesn't graduate much off the spring roster, they do lose a pair that Watkins said will be tough holes to fill.

"Wyatt Brant and Ross Hemmen were the main ones that played, and those two are going to be huge holes to fill," Watkins said. "Wyatt was a running back and safety, and Ross was a receiver, running back, and played outside linebacker."

Brant was the leading rusher last year, carrying the ball 64 times for 402 yards, to go along with seven touchdowns, while Hemmen was a dual-threat. Hemmen caught nine passes for 118 yards and three touchdowns while carrying the ball 21 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns, and despite not having either of them this year, Watkins is still confident, nonetheless.

He still believes his team can achieve what they can achieve.

Cumberland is currently on a streak of seven straight winning seasons, and with its quarterback, second-leading rusher, and top receiver all returning, there is no reason for Watkins not to believe his team can stretch that streak to eight.

BACK AND BETTER

One way to increase that string of success is by utilizing the backfield.

Iysten Syfert returns for his final season on the gridiron and should see the bulk of the carries after a spring that saw him rush for 202 yards on 38 carries with three touchdowns.

Calling the plays will be senior Logan Thilker, who completed 25 of his 42 passes for 406 yards and six touchdowns, while senior Galen Martinez will look to be his primary target. Martinez caught six passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the spring, but the list of impactful returners doesn't stop there.

"I think between those three, we can distribute the ball pretty well. Maddox McElravy was good at wide receiver, as well," Watkins said. "Offensive line-wise, we return all five of our offensive linemen from last year. Colby Ryan did a great job; Jerod Carl was real solid, as well. So, there are quite a few kids that I think can help contribute this year."

EXPERIENCE IN THE TRENCHES

Another recipe for the Pirates' success could be in an area that never gets much recognition on a football team — the offensive line.

Every team that sets its expectations high typically relies on what they have in the trenches, and the Pirates are no different. Having experience is something that means a lot to Watkins, especially with not much of an offseason.

"I think it's huge," Watkins said. "We just played in the spring, so summer was fine-tuning some stuff, and even on Day 2, we were able to run a bunch, or the majority of, our offense, just because of that experience coming back. Our offensive line, we're going to rely upon them heavily this year, and with all of them coming back, that's a good thing for us."

Playing behind an offensive line that he trusts could help Thilker, as well.

During the spring, Thilker didn't serve as just a pocket passer. He made things happen with his feet by rushing for 170 yards on 42 carries, a sight that Watkins loves to witness, knowing that his bread-and-butter is running the football.

OFFENSE STAYING PAT

No matter the opponent, Watkins will always look to go to the ground first.

Heading into the fall, that will not change; running the ball will stay as the main cog in the wheel for Watkins' offense, who said he could run different looks with his team.

"We can line up in wishbone, we can spread you out and go empty, but we want to run the ball first," Watkins said. "We think that can set up some of our play-action, but we can take some shots, too, from our athletes. I want to be a run-first offense, but a well-rounded offense, as well.

"We may add a little bit, but so much of it is situational, based on what you see from week to week."

"IF IT ISN'T BROKE, DON'T FIX IT"

The same mentality that Watkins has for his offense goes for his defense, as well.

Led by Syfert, who finished with 57 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, one safety, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two defensive scores, the Pirates' defense will only look to improve off a strong spring season.

Altogether, Cumberland allowed 22 points during the spring to go along with 16 turnovers, 43 first downs, 694 rushing yards allowed, and 246 passing yards allowed, leaving Watkins with not much to tinker with on that side, either.

Contact EDN Sports Editor Alex Wallner at 217-347-7151 ext. 124 or alex.wallner@effinghamdailynews.com

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