By Chris Parker
Diamond football had a breakout season last year in coach Mac Whitehead’s fourth season as head coach with a 5-5 campaign. The five wins were the most since 2016 and a far cry from the 0-10 season the Wildcats experienced the season prior to Whitehead taking over.
“When they (Diamond) hired me I told them that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. Luckily I have the support of the administration, the community and the kids. We have rebuilt this thing from the ground up,” Whitehead said. “Last year we were hitting things in stride. Everything we talked about building as far as an emphasis on culture and an emphasis on the weight room; we were able to see some of the fruits of that labor last year. Last year’s seniors were freshmen my first year. A lot of them had to play a lot early on. They took their lumps as freshmen and sophomores. I couldn’t be more proud of the impact they had on our program as far as laying those foundational bricks. I am super excited about where our program is now and what is ahead of us. The best years are in front of us.”
Defense will be a strength for Diamond this year with its two leading tacklers back from last season in X-zontae Foster and Kenal King.
Foster earned second-team all-conference honors after he pulled down 80 tackles to lead Diamond last year. He will be the focal point of the defense this year.
“We are counting on him (Foster) big time. He is a big kid. He has a lot of upside as far as football talent. He is a great kid and a hard worker. He is good at school. He does all the little things right,” Whitehead said. “We anticipate big things from him to be that solid anchor in the middle of our defense. We have had conversations (with him) throughout the summer. That he is not an unknown anymore. People recognize who he is. He will be a part of everyone’s offensive game plans. He has accepted the challenge and is working hard.”
King will have even more responsibility as a junior after tallying 78 tackles as a sophomore last year.
“He (King) had two really good linebackers that played beside him that were drawing a lot of attention which allowed Kendal to quietly rack up a lot of tackles,” Whitehead said. “Physically he is one of the kids who has made the greatest leap as far as strength in the weight room throughout the off-season.”
Peyton Marbough will look to fill an outside linebacker position with Kaleb Belcher, Cody Neal and Kadin Rogers all in competition for time at linebacker.
Up front, look for a trio of seniors in Nathan Gray, Jacob Atkinson and Alex Brown on the defensive line.
The secondary will feature a combination of Neal, Zach Roughton and Landon Adams. Adams had two interceptions last year and will play safety this year.
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Offensively, Diamond has some big shoes to fill with the graduation of Hunter Shallenburger and Landon Clement.
“They (Clement and Shallenburger) were probably 98% of our offense and probably 100% of our touchdowns. It is no secret that whoever steps into those roles has big shoes to fill,” Whitehead said.
That duo combined for 2,333 of 2,412 rushing yards and 24 of 25 rushing touchdowns. They also combined to throw all but one of Diamond’s 63 passes last year.
Marbough is in line to take over at quarterback in his sophomore season.
“He (Marbough) makes really good decisions,” Whitehead said. “He is tough, hard-nosed kid when he has the ball in his hands, so I am excited about that.”
Running back will be by committee this year with Belcher, Rodgers, King and Nick Meza all competing for time.
“Last year we had one big home run threat in Hunter. This year we have three or four guys if they get the ball in open space they can stretch the field quickly,” Whitehead said. “Instead of one guy carrying the mail last year like Landon, we are probably going to rely on three or four guys to do it,”
Whoever ends up carrying the ball will have an experienced line opening up holes with five senior starters returning.
Clay Callis is back for his fourth year starting on the offensive line. This year he will be at center.
“I don’t think he gets near the recognition he deserves. At the end of this year he will have hopefully over 40 varsity starts. He is the anchor of our offensive line,” Whitehead said.
Foster along with Brown, Atkinson and Gray will round out the offensive line.
“Everybody behind them will be underclassmen. Our quarterbacks, running backs and receivers are all underclassmen,” Whitehead said. “Our five guys up front are all seniors. We are going to depend on those five guys to win us some ball games.”
The receiving corps will feature a combination of Roughton, Landen Adams, Rodgers and Neal.
Diamond also has a rare weapon for a Class 1 school in a strong kicker in Jacob Atkinson. He was 18-for-21 on extra points while hitting a 21-yard field goal last year on his way to first-team all-conference and all-region honors.
“My first couple years we never thought about kicking a field goal,” Whitehead said. “Now we are thinking once we get inside the 20 we don’t feel like we have to score six because we can get three pretty automatic with Jacob.”
The Diamond football program isn’t happy to settle for a .500 record and is looking for much more this year.
“When I got here four years ago we talked about how were going to do things the right way. We were going to play fast and physical. We talked about our mission statement and vision of our program and what we wanted to be known for,” Whitehead said. “My first summer we were running 13 to 15 kids in the weight room. The last couple years we have been averaging almost 80 kids in the weight room. The kids have really taken a hold of what it means to play football at Diamond. I kid our basketball coach all the time that Diamond for the longest time has been a basketball school. That has been the main focus and they have had a lot of success. We are getting there one bite at a time; that is how you eat an elephant. We are slowly getting to make Diamond a football school as well.”