It was a difficult situation, but LaGrange College head coach Matt Mumme felt the players did a remarkable job of handling things.
With three games remaining in the 2013 season, Mumme replaced Todd Mooney as the Panthers’ head coach.
The Panthers lost their first game with Mumme at the helm, but they closed the season on a two-game winning streak to finish at 5-5.
“It’s never easy in the middle of the season when something like that happens. It was kind of a crazy year,” Mumme said on Monday during the USA South media day at Maryville College. “I thought more than anything the players handled it well. That’s who I was worried about most. It’s just one of those things when it does happen and you’re asked to step up, you have to take control and try to be a leader.”
Mumme said the players made the transition as comfortable as possible.
“We have such a great group of kids, young men, that they made it easy for me,” Mumme said. “They really did.”
Mumme has had a full off-season to adjust to his role as head coach, and on Sept. 6, he’ll lead the team onto the field for the season opener at Birmingham Southern.
“I’m blessed and excited about the opportunity I’ve been given,” Mumme said. “I’m excited about some of the things we did in 2013 and trying to carry it forward into 2014.”
When the 2013 season came to a close, one of Mumme’s primary objectives was to convince the players eligible to return for another year to stick with the program.
“My first goal after taking over as head coach, which is probably much like these (other coaches), was retention,” Mumme said. “I saw a lot of good things on the football field in 2013. I knew that a lot of these players were good players, but we needed to grow them up. We needed to get them to come back.”
Mumme added that “what I tried to do after the season was make things fun, try to make it enjoyable for those guys to be there, and come back in January and kind of re-dedicate themselves to the program.”
Mumme said his message to the players was that playing football at LaGrange College will be fun.
“The hard thing is, from 8 to 3 you have to go to class. That’s the most important thing you’re going to do. You’ve got to earn that degree to help yourself in the future and life,” Mumme said. “At 3 p.m., you get to flip that switch off, and you get to come to the football field, and you get to have some fun.”
Mumme spent part of the offseason trying to convince some new players to join in on the fun.
Mumme said the goal “was to go out and fill spots that we needed to fill from guys that were leaving from the previous season. My coaching staff did that. They have done a great job.”
The Panthers head into a new season with high hopes.
They lost some gifted players, including two-time USA South defensive player of the year Andre Carter, the school’s all-time leading tackler.
There’s plenty of talent still in the fold, though.
Eight starters return on defense, and the Panthers return nearly every key player from an offense that was explosive a year ago.
Leading the way is quarterback Graham Craig, who did an exceptional job running Mumme’s pass-oriented offense.
Eight wide receivers who saw playing time are also back, including Griffin Roelle and Marsalis Jackson, who had a combined 22 touchdown catches.
Also back are four starting offensive linemen, including two-time all-conference player Stephen Stinchcomb.
The Panthers’ offensive style won’t change this season.
Mumme was brought in as the offensive coordinator before the 2013 season to install his “Air Raid” offense, and the Panthers ended up leading NCAA Division III in passing yards per game with 357.
“It’s not really a big secret what we do on offense,” Mumme said. “We’re going to chunk it around the yard a good bit.”
Mumme joked that “we have two runs plays. We run on the field, and off the field.”
On defense, while plenty of starters return, replacing Carter at linebacker will be a tall task.
Carter, a three-year starter, played in 40 games, and he finished with 283 career tackles, and 106 of those came during his senior season.
Carter set single-season school records for tackles as a junior and a senior.
“We have a huge hole to fill. He’ll be missed,” Mumme said.
The coach added that “we do feel like we have four young guys who saw experience in 2013 that will try to fill his shoes.”
One of those players, linebacker Jordan Chambers, was the conference’s defensive rookie of the year.
The Panthers return four defensive linemen, as well as three starters in the secondary, including senior free safety Scott Chewning.
The Panthers should also benefit from the return of senior Will Jeffcoat, who’ll handle the place-kicking and punting duties.
“We’re really excited about the 2014 season, and we’re very optimistic,” Mumme said. “We’re still young in some areas, but we do have some age now.”
Mumme added that “we retained 68 guys from last year’s team, and we have 15 seniors. In football, that’s extremely valuable. You have to grow guys up. You can’t just be playing with freshmen and sophomores every year.”
Reach Kevin Eckleberry at (706) 884-7311 (ext. 232) or on Twitter @lagrangesports