Willie Fells doesn’t want to read too much into a game that doesn’t count.
“We’re not going to overanalyze this. It’s a spring game,” the Palatka High School football coach said. “We’re going to identify things we can control and go from there.”
The sentiment is understandable, but that won’t stop the curious from watching every move Fells and the Panthers make Friday night at Nease. Both teams are coming off 3-7 seasons and where PHS is entering its second season under Fells, Nease is under the direction of a new head coach, Collin Drafts.
Fells’ first season was exciting, even though it ended with six straight losses, and whether this team can continue to entertain while winning a few more against an even tougher schedule in 2019 hinges on a few things:
What of the defense, which coughed up 354 points last season, including a dubious school record in a 66-65 loss at Menendez?
A year’s maturity alone should help a 3-4 unit that has eight starters with varying degrees of varsity experience.
Starters up front are nose man Marlon Williams, flanked by ends James Matthews and Tyree Johns. The inside linebackers are D.J. Polite and Isaiah Dixon with Shamar Curry and Alvin Perry on the outside. Cornerbacks DeShawn Shaw and William King have impressed during practice and are complemented by safeties Drevon Wallace and Vincent Washington.
“We were young (last year) and we’ll be a little young this year,” Fells said. “I think we’ll be improved. We’ve made great strides at certain positions and it will be interesting to see how they do.”
Naturally, interest is also high in an offense that has to replace its leading rusher, passer and receiver from 2018.
The running back and receiver corps appear to be in the best shape. Faison Sutton will be given the first crack at replacing 1,600-yard rusher and Putnam County Player of the Year Jay’Lyn Session at tailback. Lane Huer is listed as the fullback or H-back.
Speedster Treyvon Williams was ably complemented at wide receiver last season by all-county Wesley Roberts, who emerges as the go-to guy. He is expected to get help from Malik Beauford, who is trying to follow Roberts’ transition from basketball standout to football standout. Slot man Delton Nealy gives the quarterback a third tempting target.
Question is, which quarterback?
Last year’s backup, Demontae Ashley, has a handful of starts over the last few seasons – he tied a school record with four touchdown passes in a 47-7 rout of Belleview last season – but spent most of the spring in a three-man battle. He’ll get the start against Nease, but 2018 junior varsity starter Matthew Lands will see time with the first team as well.
“It’s a competition that may continue into the fall. It’s like that at all positions,” Fells said.
That would include the offensive line, which took a huge hit to graduation and returns a single starter, left tackle Nelson Williams. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup Friday by right tackle Mason Meadows, right guard Brandon Mathews, center Dante Wilkerson and left guard Ethan Johnson.
Typical of spring games, there will be no live special teams play Friday. Still, it will be an important night for three Panthers auditioning for kicking and punting jobs – Christian Beck, Gabe Herrington and Jared Adkins.
The game’s format calls for varsity starters to play the first half, followed by a mix of backups and junior varsity players in the third before the starters return midway through the fourth.
While not wanting to read too much into the game, Fells can’t wait for his team to play.
“I think our guys are excited about competing against somebody else,” he said. “At some point, you get tired of hitting each other.”