HUNTINGTON — Three NCAA Division FBS-level and one Division II-level offensive lineman graduated from Huntington High last season, leaving the Highlanders to rebuild their offensive front heading into the 2019 season.
Terrance Pankey is the only starter returning from the front six. Only one other player who figures to be on the front line this year, Maxwell Lentz, saw playing time.
Leading the way for Huntington's good skill players are younger, untested players left to fill the spots and have the Highlanders ready to compete by the time the team opens the 2019 season Sept. 6 at home against Riverside.
However, there's no panic in Huntington football head coach Billy Seals' voice just yet. Seals said he sees Pankey as a leader who can help bring the other offensive linemen along.
"(Pankey) was one of our leaders last year," Seals said. "He's a vocal guy. He doesn't mind getting on you when its time to get on you. He wants to win football games. If you're not getting the job done, he'll let you know."
A senior, Pankey plays at 270 pounds, Seals said. At 6 feet tall, he's short by Darnell Wright standards, but his talent level isn't far behind Wright's, if at all.
"College football is about measurables now," said Seals. "He's a kid who, if he was 6-4, he could sign with any school in the country."
Pankey is a coach's player - the kind of athlete coaches love to have on the field as an extension of themselves. Seals and Huntington assistant coach Brandon Cassell said they both have confidence in Pankey to fill that role.
"Right now, under Terrance's guidance, we're raw, young. But he's an extension of me and he helps me coach the young guys up to get them back to where we've been the last two to three years, which has been relatively good," Cassell said. "And he's a bright beacon to have. It's like having another coach."
A three-year starter for the Highlanders, being a leader is what Pankey relishes.
"I try to make sure that everybody is right," Pankey said. "I tried to do that as a junior to be a captain. I'm trying to make sure everyone is on the right path, focused and keeping their heads up even in bad times."
Pankey said he's optimistic about Huntington's season and the development of the line despite the abundance of newcomers.
"I'm very confident," Pankey said. "I know everybody thinks we're undersized and might be underdogs. But this team, this is going to be a big year."
On a scale of 1 to 10, Pankey rates the offensive line that is not yet a week into fall camp at 8.5.
"We're not where we should be," Pankey said. "We have not reached our full potential, but we're getting there though. This team learns quick. In the past three practices they've picked up things faster than I've ever seen a team do. We're going to be ready when the time comes."
The skill players who depend on the offensive line for their own performance are confident in the unit too. Huntington quarterback Tajhan Blackwell and running back Diallo Mitchell are already taking snaps with the new front six and have confidence in them. They both cited Pankey as the reason why.
"We don't have a Darnell Wright but we got Terrance Pankey, Maxwell Lentz, Rashon Robertson," Blackwell said. "I'll think we'll be pretty good."
Mitchell agreed with Pankey's assessment of the offensive line and said he hasn't had to change anything about his game to compensate for a unit that might otherwise be considered subpar.
For the Huntington coaching staff, having a holdover along the line to pass down what he's learned from those who came before him has been a staple of the program in recent years.
"It went from Billy Ross to Darnell Wright and Max Howell," Cassell said. "When you have people who know what to do and can tell others, then that makes everything running a bit easier if (Pankey) can keep the calm in the huddle when I'm 53 yards away on the sideline. We're coming along. These guys need live-fire snaps."
With Huntington's season three and a half weeks away, live-fire is coming. Pankey and the offensive line will be waiting.