LUMBERTON, Miss. (WDAM ) - Standing 5 feet, 9 inches, 157 pounds, Jayson Buckley never will be confused with the most physically large player on a football field.
But the senior defensive back is a perfect fit for small-town Lumberton High School, a fearless playmaker in the secondary that teams have learned to challenge at their own expense.
“He exemplifies what we want out of a Lumberton Panther,” Lumberton coach Zach Jones said. “He’s a three-year starter for us. He’s a guy who comes to work every day and works as hard as he can. He doesn’t talk very much, but all he does is make plays.
“He’s fun to coach because all you’ve got to do is be sure he gets on the bus to get him here. You don’t have to worry about him. He studies film. He’s a very intelligent kid, who does everything we ask him to do. He’s a leader for our guys, who are going to follow his actions.
Buckley, who was selected Lumberton’s “Player of the Pine Belt,” plays like so many Panthers before him: fearless, physical, football savvy.
“Football is everything in Lumberton,” said Buckley, who has intercepted 10 passes over the past two seasons. “The stadium will be packed out, and all people will talk about is football. It’s a tradition.”
And what Buckley has learned, he’s hoping to pass on to the underclassmen in his wake.
“The older guys were there for me, so now I need to be there for the younger guys,” Buckley said. “They’ve got talent. I’ve just got to show them what to do, show them the way, just like (his elders) showed me.”
“I don’t like talking, but people who know what I do, they kind of follow me, so I try and make the right decisions.”
Buckley and the Panthers are hoping to avoid the missteps of the past few years, when double-digit winners and Region 4-1A titlists fell to lesser seeds in the playoffs.
“We have a belief around here that our goal is to win a state championship,” said Jones, who is 41-14 I his four years with the Panthers. “We want to win a (region) championship, win a state championship, and we’ve had guys who have worked hard to do that.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have been through the fire.”
Jones said the Panthers return nine starters from a defense that helped Lumberton to an 11-2 record in 2018.
Along with Buckley, heading the list are defensive line veterans Augustus Sandifer and Cullen Hammond. The duo is expected to be joined by defensive end Xavier Holder, who sparked the imagination coming off the edge before being sidelined by a knee injury.
Linebacker Trevon Jessie, who had 90 tackles last season, is expected to move from the edge at outside linebacker to a hybrid safety/middle linebacker role.
“Last year, we were as good as we’ve been on defense, and I expect us to be even better this year,” Jones said. “I think we have a chance to be really, really special on defense. We’ve got some guys who can make some plays. We’ve got a lot of tackles coming back.”
Buckley agreed with his coach.
I think we’re going to be way better than we were last year, and I’m not trying to diss last year’s defense because we’ve got a whole bunch of those guys coming back this year,” he said.
On offense, three offensive linemen return up front, which is good news for all-everything junior running back Robert Henry, who has rushed for 3,300 yards in the past two seasons.
But, despite the loss of running back/middle linebacker standout Davion Edwards from the backfield mix, Jones said the Panthers may be as deep at running back in his tenure.
“Of course, Robert is back,” Jones said. “Running back might be one of our deepest spots. (Buckley) can line up and play back there.
“Shavante Toney, Jessie, those two ran the ball real well in the spring. We may be the deepest that we’ve been at running back since I’ve been here.”
The largest unknown comes at one of the most crucial positions, quarterback, where three-year starter Jared Tribett graduated.
But Jones said he’s liked what he has seen from sophomore back-up Rodney Parker.
“We have a ton of confidence in him,” Jones said. “We’re going to turn him loose and let him make plays. He played really good for us in our spring game, better than I expected.”
In the past three years, the Panthers have won at least 10 games.
Buckley said he thinks Lumberton can take the winning even further.
“We made mistakes,” Buckley said. “We overlooked teams. Like, we’d be going into the second round, looking at the state championship. Can’t do that.
“It’s like the coaches tell us, take it day by day, game by game, and we’ll succeed.”
Lumberton opens the 2019 season at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23, visiting North Forrest High School.