When asked about his defense, Jackson County football coach Rich McWhorter certainly doesn’t understate that unit's impact on the Panthers' fortunes this season.
“Any success we have, it’s going to be revolved around our defense, no question,” he said.
That defense is coming off its best performance to date this season, having shut out Walnut Grove last week and holding the Warriors to just 115 total yards and 29 yards through the air.
Jackson County (2-2, 1-0 Region 8-AAAAA), which travels to region opponent Clarke Central Friday (Oct. 9), is surrendering just 14 points per game this season.
“Each and every week, our defense does a great job of preparing for who they have,” McWhorter said. “I think a lot of that starts with our defensive coaching staff, coach (Tyson) Baxter. They really do a great job of getting those guys lined up and where they need to be and what they need to be looking for.”
And a number of Panther defenders are producing solid seasons through four games.
Defensive lineman Andrew King entered the season as the standout on that side of the ball and has not disappointed. King, a first-team all-region selection last year, has totaled 11 tackles for loss in just three games. However, defensive lineman Travis Hughson has played the best football of his high school career, according to McWhorter, and the line has been bolstered by the emergence of freshman Peyton Scott, who was the team’s leading tackler last week.
Meanwhile, inside linebacker Colton Boone is the team’s leading tackler on the season, while outside linebacker J.T. Sosebee has several stops behind the line of scrimmage. Seniors Ty Hibbert and R.J. Jones have also drawn praise from McWhorter, while the coach pointed to the play of Ayden Griswold, Bo Reeves and newcomer Javier Martinez at safety.
McWhorter said the defensive unit, as a whole, takes well to coaching.
“They play really smart,” McWhorter said. “They’re in position. They very seldom get themselves out of position. Again, that’s a great job by both the players and the coaches on that side of the ball.”
Last week’s shutout was Jackson County’s fourth dating back to the start of last season. McWhorter said the defense has certainly held up its end.
“I said at the end of last year, I thought our defense played well enough for us to have, for sure, six wins,” McWhorter said. “We just didn’t get the support from the offensive side.”
The task gets much tougher this week for the Panther defense and for Jackson County in general. Clarke Central’s offense features quarterback William Robinson (27-of-53, 426 passing yards) and receiver Jairus Mack (281 yards receiving, 21.6 yards per catch).
“No question, they’ve got guys that can run, very good athletes,” McWhorter said. “I think it’s going to be even more emphasis on us to do as many things right as we can on both sides of the ball. Because they’ve got the kind of skill that can make you pay for it in a hurry.”
Like Jackson County, Clarke Central is off to a 2-2 start, but the Gladiators’ two losses have come to powers Oconee County and Buford.
“They definitely have been playing up,” McWhorter said. “They’ve been playing a different schedule than us, no question about that. They’ve seen some high-powered folks, and that’s only going to help them down the road.”
This region matchup with Clarke Central will pit Jackson County against one of the name-brand programs in Northeast Georgia. The program has won 412 games and three state titles in 51 seasons of football.
“I’ve always enjoyed games like this,” McWhorter said. “I enjoy playing against the top competition … It’s always a lot of fun because you know your kids are going to play their very best, and they have to play their very best to stay in it.”
He added that these games are “the kind of games you want to get your program to play.”
“That’s what you’re striving for,” McWhorter said. “This is a game we need. We need to play people like Clarke Central and be able to go out there and compete with them.”