PETAL – The Panthers are spending their offseason trying to replace a Division I running back in Stephon Huderson, an all-around athlete in Tanner Estill and numerous players on the defensive side of the ball.
Petal head coach Marcus Boyles says it’s been tough, but he likes what he’s seen so far.
“I thought we had a really good spring,” Boyles said. “With Stephon, one person isn’t going to take over for him. We have about three guys who can play that spot. Now, none of them are Division I running backs, but we feel good about all three of them and we think we have a chance to run the football again.”
Senior Hunter Cripps, juniors Semaj Silas and J’Lin Jones and sophomore Mike McGowan are four running backs Boyles named. As of this point in the summer, he doesn’t think any of the four can carry the ball 20-plus times a game, a feat Huderson did seven times last season, but that could change when the season starts.
“We just don’t have that guy, that workhorse guy,” he said. “I think you’ll see some guys get five to 10 carries apiece, and that could change. We may get into the season and one of those guys really steps up and separates himself form the pack. But right now, they can catch the ball out of the backfield, they do a good job blocking and they run really hard.”
But, there’s certainly been one area of the Petal’s offense that’s returning quite a bit of its firepower – the passing game.
Senior quarterback Jordan Wilson returns after playing the last half of the season in 2016, the Watts brothers – seniors Nataurean and Natorian Watts – are back and seniors Marquise Bridges, Nicholas Russell, as well as a group of young players to help bolster the wide receiving crops.
The Watts brothers have going through their first full offseason at Petal after Nataurean Watts caught 59 passes for 660 yards and a touchdown and Natorian Watts had 35 receptions for 607 yards and eight touchdowns.
“(Nataurean and Natorian are) doing really well,” Boyles said. “They’re going to play on both sides, especially (Nataurean), he’s going to play on both sides. He’ll start at corner and receiver. Those two guys have really gotten stronger and faster.”
For fans outside of the walls of the Petal football field house, the defense is one huge question mark after seven of the top eight tacklers graduated. Cripps is the leading returning tackler with 54. Boyles said members of the defensive line has put on weight in the weight room, and the linebackers might be a little inexperienced, but they’re not young.
“Some linebackers, we had some pleasant surprises with kids who haven’t played a lot,” Boyles said. “They’re not young, they just haven’t played a lot. They’ve had a really good spring and a good summer.”
Wilson at quarterback
Senior Jordan Wilson is in the process of his first offseason as the starting quarterback for Petal after appearing in eight games – five as the starter – compiling 1,227 yards on 52 percent passing with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He was 4-1 as the starter, which included two playoff wins and a trip to the 6A South State Championship game.
“I think it was huge for him, especially in the playoffs,” Boyles said of Wilson’s experience last season. “He played really well against D’Iberville, really well against Brandon and he made some big throws against Brandon. The south state game, he probably didn’t have his best game in the world, but it was a learning experience for him and he’ll be better because of that game.”
Because of the big-game experience from last season, Wilson won’t have the “deer in the headlights” look when Petal faces Hattiesburg in Week 1, Gulfport for Week 2 and New Orleans power, Brother Martin, the third week of the season.
“I was worried about big games,” Wilson said. “Last year, when I started against Forest Hill, that really wasn’t a big game. But then the playoffs and I got the big game experience, so I think because of that, now I won’t be as nervous as I would if that was my first big game.”
Wilson said he didn’t expect to play such a big role in the Panthers’ offense in 2016, especially since it wasn’t because of then-quarterback Tanner Estill going down due to injury.
Wilson said he’s better prepared mentally now.
“Studying film more and preparing myself like I’m the man,” Wilson said. “Last year, I was preparing myself but I didn’t really try hard. But now I’m trying hard and I think it’s going to pay off.”
Wilson said he’s used this offseason to get better at his reads, getting his arm stronger and of course, becoming a better leader.
“Being more vocal, lead by example, getting people up when they’re down and stuff like that,” he said.