Jackson County football coach Rich McWhorter believes he has a deeper and more talented roster on his hands this year.
Of course, with no preseason scrimmages, the Panthers haven’t had a chance to put that to the test.
“We’re excited to watch them play,” said McWhorter, who begins his second year with the Panthers. “We’ve got, we think, an overall better roster than we did last year, a little bit more athleticism, a little bit more depth at some positions. We feel like the questions we have now can really only be answered by playing somebody else.”
Jackson County will open the season Sept. 4 against West Hall.
“I know we didn’t have spring ball, and we didn’t have much in June, but still it feels like we’ve been at this for a while, and we’re wanting a game,” McWhorter said.
The Panthers are coming off a 3-7 season in McWhorter’s first year with the program. But McWhorter, a 31-year head coaching veteran with 291 wins, said development of returning players paired with a large, talented freshmen class has yielded a better roster. That roster has grown from 60 players last year to 88.
The Panthers return college prospects along the offensive and defensive lines, respectively, with standouts Tyler Vaughn and Andrew King. Jackson County should also benefit from a deeper receiving corps, led by Bo Reeves, and a deeper secondary.
Connor Bejin will take over at quarterback for an offense seeking improvement after averaging under 12 points a game last year. Meanwhile, La’travious Ransom is expected to have a major impact at running back, while also doubling as a linebacker.
The team will still have to navigate the losses of Micah Swift (linebacker), Brandon Fisher (defensive line), Gabe Lockridge (receiver) and Tyler Wester (receiver). And McWhorter said it’s not yet clear how far along they are in replacing those spots with the team only having practiced against itself.
“We’d like to get this group to a ball game and see how those things are working,” McWhorter said.
It’s a group that’s getting stronger, though. McWhorter said the team has returned to the level it enjoyed in the weight room in the spring before a long hiatus for COVID-19.
“I’d love to see what our kids would have looked like if that wouldn’t have happened,” McWhorter said.
This Jackson County team will face new surroundings.
After years of playing in Region 8-AAA, Jackson County made the leap to Class AAAAA and Region 8-AAAAA. The voluntary move to Class AAAAA was motivated by projections that Jackson County would jump to Class AAAAA school in the next reclassification cycle.
“We’re excited about it,” McWhorter said. “It’s going to be some folks that Jackson County hasn’t seen before or at least in a long time, and we think its going to be great competition.”
McWhorter said Clarke Central, a traditional powerhouse, “is definitely the class of the region” but believes the rest of 8-AAAAA “can be really wide open.”
“We hope to be in the middle of it,” McWhorter said.
Jackson County’s other region opponents are Apalachee, Eastside, Greenbrier, Johnson, Loganville and Walnut Grove.
McWhorter said the program’s goal is to enter each game believing it can win. He said that was only the case for about half of last year’s schedule.
But he sees this year differently.
“I think we’ve got 10 games on our schedule that if we come in prepared and play well, we’ve got a shot,” McWhorter said.
The players, however, must believe that, he said.
“I’ve been telling them all this time, ‘This is a good football team and this is a good roster, and we’ve got a chance to win a lot of ball games,’” McWhorter said.
•All-time record: 116-288-4
•Accomplishments: seven playoff appearances
•Head coach: Rich McWhorter (second season at Jackson County, 3-7; 31st season overall, 291-86-2)
•Key players: Tyler Vaughn, Sr., OL; Andrew King, Sr., DL; La’travious Ransom, Jr., RB-LB; Bo Reeves, Sr., WR-DB; Ayden Griswold, Sr., WR-DB-PK; Cody Baugh, Sr. OL; Jonathan Lindquist, Jr. OL; Evan Rosser, Jr., OL;
•Strengths: The Panthers have standout linemen on each side of the ball, Tyler Vaughn on the offensive line and Andrew King on the defensive line. They also have what they believe is a playmaker at running back in La’travious Ransom. Jackson County will be led by a strong senior class, which has 20 members, but the Panthers have also enjoyed the addition of several freshmen who are pushing for playing time.
•Mark your calendar: The Panthers open region play Oct. 2 against Walnut Grove, which the Panthers hope begins a push for the state playoffs. A week later (Oct.9), Jackson County travels to Clarke Central’s Death Valley for the first time since 2007. Jackson County’s biggest non-region show down, a Sept. 11 meeting with East Jackson, was canceled due to multiple Eagles being quarantined due to a COVID-19 exposure issue.
•Outlook: The Panthers start anew in Region 8-AAAAA, where they’ll have to contend with Clarke Central but should have a chance to grab one of the four playoff spots. The Panthers are loaded with seniors and have enjoyed more competition for starting spots than last year. That should pay dividends for a program trying to end a three-year playoff drought.
Panther coach excited about improved receiving corps
Despite two key losses at wide receiver, Jackson County expects to be deeper at the position when it lines up against opposing defenses this fall.
Gabe Lockridge and Tyler Wester both graduated and are playing college football, but coach Rich McWhorter is excited about a 2020 receiver group that includes a number of potential impact players in the Panthers’ pass-oriented spread offense.
“Last year, our kind of go-to guys were Wester and Lockridge at wide receiver,” McWhorter said. “We knew losing those two, we were concerned, but I tell you what, we as a group, that group is a lot better this year than it was last year … Not saying anything about the two we lost, I’m just saying the depth has come up.”
Bo Reeves, a second-team all-region selection last year, is the Panthers’ top returning receiver and has “really not missed a beat,” McWhorter said.
Meanwhile, Ayden Griswold is said to have had an impressive offseason and improved significantly. Dwight Levy and the 6-4 Bryce Blake will fit into the receiving plans, while Markel Oliver and Anthony Finley have shown explosiveness. Tyson Dean and Hayden Rosser have impressed coaches as freshmen. Dalton Norton will also see time at receiver.
McWhorter is excited about the potential of the younger receivers.
“We threw the ball around a bunch in JV (last year) with a lot of success,” McWhorter said.
At H-back/tight end, Jackson County has dual starters, Bailey Hamm and J.T. Sosebee, with Jacob Crumely and Colton Boone adding depth.
Distributing the ball to those receivers will be Connor Bejin, a 6-3 junior “with a great arm,” according to McWhorter.
“He’s taken on that position,” McWhorter said.
Bejin has showed off his mobility and the ability to make all the throws. His skill as a runner is particularly important to the Panthers’ plans
“The offense isn’t nearly as good without that true running threat right there,” McWhorter said.
Jake Stinchcomb, who split time as a starting quarterback last year, has been praised for his consistency and leadership in practice. Meanwhile, Isaiah Maxey has shown the most improvement of the trio over the offseason and finds ways to make plays, according to McWhorter. “He’s kind of the gunslinger of the group,” McWhorter said.
La’travious Ransom brings big-play ability to the Panthers at running back, where McWhorter said “he’s as good as anybody.”
Dylan Page, a converted wide receiver, will also figure into the plans at running back, while freshmen Jaden Cofer and M.J. Spurlin are showing “a lot of promise.”
“We thought, going into the year, that we had no depth there, but it’s turning out that we do,” McWhorter said.
Jackson County’s offensive line has quality but perhaps not the quantity that McWhorter would like.
“We don’t have a lot of depth on the offensive line, which is really concerning,” McWhorter said.
Tyler Vaughn and Cody Baugh, both senior returning starters, will occupy the guard spots. Vaughn, a second-team all-region selection in 2019, is a college prospect along the offensive line, according to McWhorter.
Jonathan Linquist and Evan Rosser will play the tackle positions. Both have “college bodies” and good feet and could draw interest from recruiters, too, according to McWhorter. The team’s new center is Holden Gilstrap, a sophomore.
Logan Cantrell, Ethan Logan, Payton Scott and Alexander Julian will also see time along the offensive line.
The Panther offensive front is also a sizable group.
“They’re big guys,” McWhorter said. “They look the part, no question.”
McWhorter said the coaching staff has simplified the scheme up front to allow those players to play faster.
“Once we did that, we’re starting to see those guys play quicker,” McWhorter said.
Along the defensive front, Jackson County returns a stalwart in Andrew King, a first-team all-region selection last year. King possesses size, speed and strength, according to McWhorter, and is a college prospect.
“He can play for somebody somewhere,” McWhorter said.
King is the lone full-time returning starter along the defensive line, but Panther coaches are excited about the emergence of freshman Payton Scott. The defensive front will be bolstered by seniors Jordan Adamson and Travis Hughson, who saw a lot of action on the defensive front in 2019. Garett Ford will also see time along the defensive front.
At linebacker, the graduation of leading tackler Micah Swift “left a huge void,” acceding to McWhorter. Colton Boone and Bailey Hamm will be counted on at inside linebacker, along with Garrett Julian, M.J. Spurlin and La’travious Ransom, whom McWhorter praised for his instincts at linebacker, though he’ll be relied on heavily on offense.
Riley Konarski, Caden Alford, Evan Wolczek, Angelo Jimenez and Drew Nash will add depth at inside linebacker.
Meanwhile, J.T. Sosebee has impressed McWhorter so much at outside linebacker that the coach believes Sosebee could become a college prospect. “He’s looking outstanding,” McWhorter said.
Crumley and Jesse Combs, who’s added size, will also play on the outside.
R.J. Jones, Reeves, Dwight Levy and Ayden Griswold will anchor the Panther secondary, while freshman Xavier Bailey and Jaden Cofer will figure into the plans. Jake Stinchcomb is also getting reps at safety. Key Hilbert, Anthony Finley, Cooper Hoffman, Javier Martinez Dalton Norton and Markel Oliver will also play in the defensive backfield.
Griswold will handle the placekicking and punting duties again this year. “His extra points and field goals have been outstanding,” McWhorter said.
The coach pointed to the overall competition for positions all over the practice field
“With our kids growing and with us having some freshmen that really came in and are competing with the older kids, it makes our roster a lot better,” McWhorter said.
Football in a pandemic
What this season means …
Jackson County senior defensive lineman Andrew King knows nothing is guaranteed this year with football during a pandemic, so he has a message for his teammates.
“Play everyone like it’s our last,” King said. “We go on the field, I tell everybody, ‘This might be our last time, and let’s give it everything. Let’s just have a blast and have fun. Let’s play to win.’”
With the GHSA planning a 10-game season this year, seniors at least have the possibility to enjoy one final season, unless circumstances change during the course of the year. And that opportunity “means a lot,” King said.
“It’s my last year here,” he said. “It’s my last time touching the field with kids I grew up with, so I think it’s a really big plus for us that we can still play football … I think we’re all excited and hyped about it. We’ve been getting after it in practice, having a good time while it lasts.”
And King expects big things out of the Panthers this season, one in which they’ll jump from Class AAA to Class AAAAA. The team is in its second year under Rich McWhorter, who has 291 career wins, and boasts a larger, deeper roster.
“I think we can be a championship team if we all set our mind to it, all start communicating more, be more of a team,” King said. “I feel like we’ve got a chance to go to the championship.”