PETAL, Miss. (WDAM) - During the past two football seasons, inexperienced Petal High School teams wobbled out of the gate before finishing strong down the stretch to reach the playoffs and win a postseason game before bowing out.
This fall, with a seasoned set of skill players and more than a smattering of veterans on both sides of the football, the Panthers are expecting even better days.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, for sure, so we’re looking to start fast,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “Last year, we started slow, but we had so much youth and inexperience on our team.
“But by the end of the year, I thought our kids were really battling in every game. I thought we were a pretty good football team by the end of the season.”
Senior outside linebacker Ja’korian Newsome played a big role in the maturation process, and Boyles said he’s expecting, even more, this season from the three-year starter.
“He’s very instinctive, has a high football IQ,” Boyles said. “He doesn’t miss tackles. He is a really good athlete and studies the game, works really hard.
“He’s a very humble guy who has really, really worked hard.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Newsome, who Boyles tapped as Petal’s “Player of the Pine Belt,” led the Panthers with 103 tackles (74 solos) in 2018, including a team-high 13 tackles for loss and four fumbles forced.
“I’m more sideline to sideline,” Newsome said. “I’m more a runner. I can move from sideline to sideline.”
Newsome said he’s seen the Panthers make strides during the offseason.
“So far, we’re looking pretty good,” Newsome said. “We’ve lost some people in the secondary from last year, but we gained with some young people, who are ready to learn and get better. That’s what we’ve been trying to do this summer, the learning.
“Offensively, we’re going to be deep, and defensively, we’ve got some people coming back. So, we’re going to be good this year.”
The Panthers return starting quarterback DeCarlos Nicholson, who completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,446 yards and 11 touchdowns with four interceptions. Nicholson also rushed for 507 yards and four touchdowns.
Petal also returns its top two running backs in Michael Mcgowan (1,219 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Rashad Hanford (951 yards, 13 touchdowns).
To boot, the Panthers return three of five offensive linemen and two of three starting defensive linemen.
“We feel really good about those things,” Boyles said. “You know, the game’s going to be won upfront. Can we block? Can we pass protect? Can we stop the run with our D-line? If we can do all that, it’s going to help us out.”
Petal opens the season at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, when the Panthers host Hattiesburg High School.