With all the disruption that 2020 brought and with COVID-19 still around, Apalachee head coach Tony Lotti was delighted just to get a full football calendar in 2021, and he was extra-jazzed last week when the Wildcats hit the field to start their two-week spring practice period after the pandemic kept them from having a spring session last year.

“It’s always been nice this time of year to get back out there on the field and get a look to see who’s grown and hopefully made some strides,” Lotti said Monday, May 3, ahead of the Wildcats’ third of nine scheduled practices before they host East Jackson in a spring scrimmage slated for May 12. “Every year you hope you’ve got some kids who have been in that developmental phase or stretch and you’re looking to see them take that next step. But it’s great whenever we get to be around each other and toss the ball around. It’s the best couple hours of my day.”

Nevertheless, Lotti and the Wildcats enter this spring with plenty to work on. As he gets set for his fourth year at the helm of the program, the Wildcats, who went 2-8 last season, are still looking to take things to the next level on the field and finally snap a postseason drought that dates back to 2009. Before Apalachee kicks off its 2021 season Aug. 20 at Winder-Barrow, Lotti and his staff will look to develop depth and find starters to plug holes that are being created by graduation.

Arguably the most important void to fill will be at quarterback, where Todd Jones, who started a handful of games as a sophomore and junior before taking over the role full-time as a senior last fall and passing for over 1,300 yards, is being lost to graduation. Rising junior Paxton Stanfield and rising sophomore Howard Holloway, who saw extensive junior-varsity action behind center last season, are among those vying to become the varsity starter in 2021.

“There aren’t necessarily any frontrunners, but those couple of guys are really battling for it,” Lotti said. “Skillset-wise, they’re fine, but with quarterbacks, so much of it is about maturity level and seeing how they manage the offense and game situations and how they adjust to a new speed. Those things are all going to be key in figuring out who’s going to take the reins.”

Apalachee figures to return more players at other various spots around the field. Rising senior Elijah Harris, a first-team all-GHSA Region 8-AAAAA selection in 2020, will anchor a veteran offensive line, while rising senior and two-way starter Colby Sikes will be a key returning playmaker after a breakout junior campaign that saw him rush for 503 yards at 7.9 yards a carry and four touchdowns in nine games. He also tied for the team lead in receptions with 26 and caught three touchdown passes and added a kickoff return for a score.

Rising senior Channin Daniels and rising sophomore Prince Tate are a pair of running backs who saw increased playing time in the backfield after senior Tauheed Ferguson was sidelined with a season-ending hip injury early in the season. Sikes and rising junior Deondre Moore are key returners in the secondary, while defensive lineman Tyler Ferro will be back after a breakout sophomore season.

Rising senior Brody Ham returns as the team’s placekicker after missing the back half of last season with an injury.

The upcoming senior class will be the first group of Apalachee players to go through four years with Lotti, and the coach said he’s looking forward to seeing how they handle their leadership roles.

“They’ve seen some good things done from that standpoint and some things that were not so good,” Lotti said. “We’ve had some open discussions about how they plan to be the example for the younger guys to follow, and I think they’re ready for it and are going to do a good job.”

Apalachee’s May 12 scrimmage against East Jackson will kick off at 7 p.m. at R. Harold Harrison Stadium, and Lotti said a primary focus of the game will be seeing how the newcomers handle themselves under the lights.

“We’re going to be looking for that ability to control their enthusiasm and keep their composure while maintaining their game intensity,” he said. “We just want to see who can handle themselves well in a game situation and who maybe needs to do some more developing in that area as we head into the summer and fall preparations.”

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