Petal's D: from unknown to force

By CAMAL PETRO,

During the offseason, questions swirled about the Panthers’ defense. While the players were busy getting ready for the 2017 season, many didn’t know what Petal would look like on that side of the ball.

Head coach Marcus Boyles, defensive coordinator Philip Pigott and the assistant coaches turned a couple of returning starters into a force to be reckoned with every Friday night.

“I think our defense has gotten better each week and I think our team has gotten better,” Boyles said. “We only had one guy back on the front seven, and I think those guys have really grown up and I think our coaches on the defensive side has done a great job coaching those kids to developing the talent we have.”

Senior linebacker Hunter Cripps is one of those returning starters, and he’s second on the team with 80 total tackles, three tackles of a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. He knew about the unknowns heading into the season, but he wasn’t worried when he saw his teammates putting in the work.

“That just comes from our work ethic in the offseason,” he said. “We worked so hard in the summer and everything just getting our players ready to do our assignments.”

Senior nose guard Willie Sims has been an important piece to the defense, too. He doesn’t get the glory by racking up the tackles, but instead, does the dirty work to help set up his teammates by eating up blocks.

“Whatever it takes to win,” he said with a smile.

Sims believes the defense is something special, too. He had some lofty things to say about the 2017 Panthers.

“I feel like this is the best defense to ever come through Petal,” he said. “We don’t give up as many points and we don’t allow as many big plays.”

Only Oak Grove and Hattiesburg scored more than 30 points on the defense, and probably the most impressive performance came in a 14-3 loss to Pearl in late September.

Cripps, who was penciled in as a possible running back prior to the season, has only missed one game this season, and it was the only hiccup Petal has had in six weeks. The Panthers lost to Meridian 28-21 three weeks ago, and Cripps said it was “awful” watching from the sidelines.

“Just seeing your team losing and not being able to do anything about it,” he said. “That’s the worst feeling.”

Speaking of Cripps playing running back, that’s where he gets his nickname, “Wolf.” Offensive coordinator Lanny Beach saw Cripps going through a running back drill, the Oklahoma drill to be exact, and Beach said he ran like an angry wolf.

Cripps hasn’t gotten much action at running back this season, though, but he’s OK with it.

“Anything that helps the team,” he said. “I knew (senior Nataurean) Phat (Watts) could play running back. I knew he was a better athlete and better running back than me, so I thought the defense needed me more. Whatever decision coach Boyles made, I was with it.”

Midseason switch

The Petal coaches decided to switch junior Luther Woullard from safety to outside linebacker, which moved junior Zy Magee to Woullard’s spot.

“I think that was a really good move by the defensive coaches, and that made us better on defense,” Boyles said.

Magee has 53 total tackles, two tackles for a loss, three sacks, an interception and four forced fumbles on the season, and Woullard has 36 tackles, a sack, an interception and one forced fumble.

“I think it’s been great,” Cripps said. “Luther, he’s a big body. Zy isn’t as big, but he’s really quick, fast and agile. I feel like safety was a good fit for him, and we needed a bigger body at outside backer, so that’s been good.”