The Petal Panthers have found themselves in a rare position.
The Panthers’ backfield returns three players in 2019 who combined for 4,123 offensive yards, which leaves Petal coach Marcus Boyles and his assistant coaches with a lot of options on that side of the ball.
Quarterback DeCarlos Nicholson passed for nearly 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, and running backs Micah McGowan and Rashad Handford each scored 13 touchdowns with 1,219 and 951 rushing yards, respectively. To go along with his passing yards, Nicholson also rushed for 507 yards and four touchdowns last season.
“It’s really rare (to have that much production return),” Boyles said. “Obviously, we’re privileged and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
No, Boyles doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night with new ideas of what he could do with those three players, but the Panthers are trying to find different ways to use all three on the field together. However, Petal isn’t changing too much of its offense to accommodate those skill players.
“After doing it for so long, you have some wrinkles, but you’re going to do what you’re going to do,” Boyles said. “People know we’re going to be inside zone, outside zone and power.”
The Panthers didn’t use McGowan and Handford together all that much last season, but they’ll do more of it this season. Handford seeing time at one of the receiver positions could be how Petal puts both players on the field together, but don’t rule out both being in the backfield either.
“It’s good having those guys to take the load off me,” Nicholson said. “Mic can go for about 200 a game, and so can Rashad. They just make it easier for me.”
The Panthers aren’t deep at receiver right now. There are a few returners, but they’ll need players to step up at that position, so teams don’t just have to stop the run. Handford could be an option out wide, because he did catch nine passes last season for 123 yards and three scores.
The Panthers do return juniors Jeremiah Robinson and Jonathan Harris, who snagged 19 passes each and combined for 529 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
“(McGowan and Handford), you always have that safety net,” Boyles said. “Our receivers, if those guys keep developing, we’re going to be explosive on offense.”
Both can line up in the backfield together and both can make catches from there, too, but Handford will more than likely be the one motioned out to a receiver position more often. The Panthers have other players at running back, as well, so they have plenty of options.
Last season, McGowan was a returning running back who many thought could make a jump from his sophomore season to his junior season, and he did. After rushing for 227 yards on 50 carries in 10th grade, he exploded for 1,219 yards on 229 rushing attempts in 2018. The 5-foot-11 back started last season with two 100-yard games before adding a 211-yard performance against Laurel in early September. His number of carries varied from game to game down the stretch of the season, as he split time with Handford, but he finished the year by averaging more than five yards per carry on those 229 attempts.
McGowan’s junior season put his name out there, and he’s ready to build off that momentum as a senior. He has a pretty simple approach, too.
“Just come to practice every day and keep grinding,” he said.
Handford busted onto the scene in that Laurel game, too. After totaling 162 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries through the first three games of the season, he joined McGowan in the 200-yard club with 207 yards and three scores on 16 carries in the 27-0 win over Laurel.
The Laurel game was the first time the two running backs both reached more than 100 yards, and they did it again against Gulfport in the first round of the playoffs. In the 34-0 dismantling of the Admirals, McGowan rushed for 108 yards and a score and Handford added two touchdowns on 101 yards.
The two then-junior running backs became an effective duo following that game, allowing Petal to spell the two running backs when the time was right. That allowed Nicholson to grow more and more at the quarterback position, with his play getting better each week.
For Handford, it’s pretty simple how they can repeat the successes from a season ago.
“Just do the same thing and keep working,” Handford said. “Just get better every day.”
Sadly, there isn’t much of a friendly competition between the two running backs.
“We just compete on the yards,” Handford said. “We want a lot of yards.”
Nicholson, a 6-foot-3 dual quarterback, started the season with four straight games with less than a 50 percent completion rate, but he finished the season eight games in a row above that mark. While he got better in a short amount of time last fall, he’s been working hard this summer to improve his game even more.
“The biggest things I’ve been working on is my footwork, my reads and just taking what (the defense) gives me,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson also has something to prove this year. As far as the recruiting accolades, he’s not getting the attention he feels he deserves, but he plans to show what he can do on the field this season.
“I know (I have something to prove). I’ve been overlooked,” Nicholson said.