When last season ended for the Ridgeland Panthers in the second round of the playoffs, coach Mark Mariakis was thinking ahead. One area was sticking in his head, a crucial part of the team that could sink the team's high hopes for 2012.
While elite playmakers Vonn Bell and Darrell Bridges would be returning, four new members of the offensive line would have to step up - or step in.
As training camp opened for the Panthers, there is still concern about the trenches, but two transfers have transformed the area into a possible strength. Dade County two-year starter Gannon Hampton and East Ridge starter Grady Matthews moved into the Rossville area, immediately improving the line's potential and the coach's spirit.
"Those guys are going to help us a lot," Mariakis said. "Gannon was a two-way starter at Dade, and he moved in last winter and was able to go through spring camp with us. He's going to help us on both lines. Grady is a big kid who can really move, though we're just now seeing him in pads."
Those are two of four transfers to join the program for this season, which has caught the attention of some area coaches and fans. On the heels of the issues at Signal Mountain and Dalton last year, where transfers were ruled ineligible after playing several games and the teams were forced to vacate or forfeit wins, the spotlight is bright on any program accepting new players.
Mariakis is aware of the talk but said the school has done its due diligence on each of the players. He also noted that if a new student goes through the transfer process properly, which includes a bona fide move into the school area, the school has no choice but to accept him.
"That's the law," he said. "Every kid that transfers in, whether they are an athlete or not, gets checked out by someone who is not involved in athletics. We're not going to apologize for kids who want to move in and play."
Hampton said several reasons played into his, and his family's, decision to transfer.
"One of the big reasons is the honors program, of which I am a member, and football-wise Ridgeland has a reputation of being a great program," Hampton said. "I know several of the guys, so I felt comfortable right away. And with Vonn being around, there are always college coaches here, so you're going to get noticed."
The program has had several players earn high-profile college scholarships in recent years, and Bell is rated as one of the top prospects in Georgia and has over 20 offers. Ridgeland has won three region championships in the past four seasons and is a favorite to win new-look Region 7-AAAA this year.
"We're fortunate to have kids move in and want to play football," Mariakis said. "I hope it says something good. Obviously, winning helps, as do the high-profile recruits. On top of that, we've got a great school for kids to come to. Hopefully, the whole Ridgeland package is what's drawing kids here.
"I mean, football is 10 weeks a year, so I hope they come here for more than football."