Thunder & Lightning: Panthers’ backfield features scary combo

By CAMAL PETRO,

Entering his fourth season as the head coach of his hometown team, Lumberton’s Zach Jones has never had a problem finding a running back to tote the ball.

The 2015 PineBeltSPORTS Player of the year Daylyn Burks totaled 2,752 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns in Jones’ first season, then Dre Coleman added 2,576 yards on the ground with 32 scores the following year.

In 2017, Jones entered the season with a “running back by committee” mindset, but the season ended with Jones coming to an easy conclusion. Then-freshman Robert Henry is the running back of the future. Henry rushed for 1,225 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first season with the program. After amassing only 16 carries through the first three games, Henry ran the ball 19 times for 131 yards and two scores in his breakout game four weeks into the season.

“It just something I had to work for in the weight room and the practice field,” Henry said. “I had to step up. I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.”

Henry is a speedster and uses the ability to breeze past the first set of tacklers to get into open field. He rushed for a 6-yard per carry average and had six 100-yards games, including a season-high 181 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff game against Vardaman.

What makes the Panthers rushing game so scary are the options it can throw at a team. Senior Davion “Soul” Edwards is just as capable of putting the team on his back at running back. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound back is the bruiser of the group, and it throws off defenses after watching the juking, speedy Henry.

“I feed off of him,” Henry said of Edwards. “Everything that he does, I watch and try to do the same.”

Edwards’ nickname “Soul” is short for “Soul Train,” but it didn’t come from his dance moves. When he was younger, Edwards hit as hard as a train.

“I still do,” Edwards said quickly.

Edwards, who also plays linebacker, seeks out contact when he has the ball. He’s not afraid of putting his shoulder down and popping an opponent in the chest. However, don’t be fooled. He’s quick, too.

After most of a game dealing with Henry, defenses will play to his speed. When Edwards comes into the game, the defenses will play closer to the line. That plays right into Edwards’ advantage. While the big-bodied back is surprisingly fast, he’ll also seek out contact when he’s running the ball, which is similar to his linebacker mentality.

“It’s the same mentality,” Edwards said. “Just run hard. One man can’t tackle me. That’s how I feel. I enjoy contact.”

In the region-clinching win at Stringer last season, Henry had already recorded more than 100 rushing yards when Edwards came in on offense in the second half to a seemingly close the game. Late in the game, he rushed up the middle, hit a spin move, then galloped past the Red Devils’ defense for a 30-plus-yard touchdown to put the game away.

“When he’s in, he’s quick and fast and teams have to play to his speed,” Edwards said. “When I come in, the overrun and that’s when I cut back and boom.”

Lumberton’s early exit in the 2017 playoffs still weighs heavy on Edwards’ mind. He’s using it a motivation, though, during his last go-round as a Panther. He’s not shy about his lofty expectations either.

“Definitely, because my sophomore year we almost won state, then last year was an upset. I think we can be really good. I think this is the best we’ve ever been my whole high school career. Everybody has the same mindset.”

Edwards confessed he enjoys playing linebacker a little more than running back, and Henry admitted he wants to be better than past running backs who donned a Lumberton uniform.

So, what’s his goal as a sophomore? He wants to record 2,000 rushing yards and a capture a state championship.

Coach’s dream

Whether or not a coach wants to trot out a sophomore quarterback as his starter, the benefits are put on display once that signal caller becomes a senior. For Lumberton coach Zach Jones and incoming senior Jared Tribett, it has worked out since Day 1.

As a sophomore, Tribett led the Panthers to the 1A State Championship game then added back-to-back region titles as a junior. A disappointing end to 2017, however, as the senior even hungrier to finish his career on top.

“I feel like the years have gone by really fast,” Tribett said. “When I came into ninth grade, coach Jones just got here. I didn’t really know him and he didn’t really know me. We’re just the best of friends now.”

Tribett’s numbers aren’t flashy, but he’s gotten the job done with a 22-6 record as the starter. He’s passed for more than 1,700 yards each of the last two seasons, while adding 16 touchdowns to 10 interceptions as a sophomore and 24 passing scores and only six picks as a junior.

His leadership hasn’t been a question the last couple of seasons, and he’s grown even more as a leader this offseason.

“Be more positive and be an example,” Tribett said when asked how he’s stepping up. “Always carrying myself the right way because these younger kids are looking at me.”

While he’s had some phenomenal running backs in the backfield with him, Tribett can run, too, and he’s ready to prove that even more during his final ride.

Blocking for Edwards, Henry and Tribett on the offensive line is another coach’s dream – soon-to-be four-year starter Antwuan Lampton. The senior recognizes the offensive line doesn’t get a lot of credit, but the payoff of doing his job correctly is worth it.

“When the line blocks, we score touchdowns,” Lampton said. “We don’t get the much credit. It’s fun to see them make creative plays. Sometimes the holes won’t be there, so they bounce out sometimes to create things.”

Henry recognizes the play of his offensive line and how it makes his game better.

“I have to give credit to the line, too,” he said. “Without them, we can’t do anything.”