By: Eric Tabor
Albany Panthers Indoor Football
Media Relations Director
In his corner of the locker room, linebacker Larry Edwards smiled and laughed as he answered questions. On the other side, the linemen were busting defensive end Lionel Bibbins for his white “Gucci slippers,” that Bibbins grinned and swore were just Rockports. And defensive back LeVance Richmond was off the hook, because even when things went wrong, they went right.
That’s the story of the Albany Panthers’ defense, the side that was supposed to struggle but instead is carrying the team and having a great time doing it.
“I think we’re having fun – any time you’re dominating it’s always fun,” Edwards said. “The good thing about it is, guys are not getting tired of being great. Every play is a new opportunity for guys to go out and keep proving why they belong.
“It’s a lot of competition like it’s been all camp, and I’m really liking what’s going on so far.”
The Panthers have to like it, especially because they couldn’t have honestly expected it.
The defense that started the season without standout ends James Harris and Alton Pettway. Yet they turned in a second straight performance that was, to use Edward’s word, dominating.
“They’ve been pretty salty both postseason games so far,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said.
They allowed the Lions a total of 261 yards, but only 50 in the fourth quarter with the Lions’ offense on the field. The Panthers are giving up an average of 240 yards in two playoff games, a number that’s put this team in the league championship. They also have been the beneficiary of 12 turnovers in those contests, and their scoring average of 14 points per game.
“I think the most important thing we’re doing right now is playing fast,” Bibbins said. “From the line to linebackers to secondary, everybody’s playing their position fast, knowing their responsibility, and that has allowed us to come out and be successful.”
The improved pass rush is the most obvious factor, with different players making an impact every game. Each of the three defensive ends have had a multi-sack game, the kind of collective effort they knew they’d have to have in the absence of departed star Alton Pettway.
But the improvements they’re making are front-to-back, with new guys stepping into new roles and playing well.
Defensive back Corey Rue moved from defensive back to jack linebacker, and defensive end Jacob Hardwick has responded well replacing nose tackle Munir Muwwakkil on pass downs. The Panthers knew Hardwick was technically sound, but he has responded to sharing the leadership load.
“Yeah, when we’re flying around like that you definitely feel it, and that all starts with Larry Edwards because he sets the tone and you feel it when you’re playing,” Hardwick said. “It’s different from any other defensive system I have been in and it’s a lot of fun to play in.”
They’re also living right, as even busted plays are yielding results.
McCray admitted he was out of position on his interception of Columbus quarterback Chris McCoy, having vacated the zone he was supposed to be covering. But instead of hesitating, he stepped in front of a Lions receiver to make another impact play.
“I shouldn’t have come. But I came,” McCray said. “I thought it was one call and it wasn’t. But once I was halfway in there, I just kept going. And it worked. …
“We’re just playing our assignment, playing as a whole. We’re not worried about individual stats. We’re just working on our D-line rushing, our back end covering, our linebackers tackling and covering. It’s been working out for us.”
It needs to, because the Panthers’ offense – particularly the passing game – has been slow on the uptake. Edwards acknowledged that it might not always go this smoothly for his side, but for the moment, he’s simply enjoying a heady time for the defense.
“I think they obviously are starting to jell,” he said of the offense. “Right now, we’re playing well on defense, and it’s going to be like that in the championship, there will be games where the offense is scoring lots of points and we’re not getting off the field. True teams, everybody does their jobs, and if they’re down one day it’s our job to pick it up. …
“Yeah, there are so many new pieces, lot of new faces, young guys and veterans. To play so well at this point in the season is a good thing, and hopefully it will carry over into the Championship game.”
The Panthers will play for the SIFL Championship, Saturday, July 2, at the Albany James H. Gray Civic Center at 7:30. All reserved seats are $10 in advance and $15 on game day.