Player turnover is inescapable in high school sports. The Hattiesburg Tigers know this all too well after they graduated 26 seniors last season, 13 of which are playing collegiate football this fall. This mass exodus of talent has left some big holes of inexperience on both sides of the ball.
“Our expectations haven’t changed. We’re still chasing that gold ball,” Head Coach Tony Vance said about his young team.
While the defensive side of the ball lost six starters, the Tigers defense seems to be the foundation of this year’s team. The middle of the Hattiesburg defense is returning LB/S Anthony Bullock, CB/S Jaquez Andrews, LB Cedric McGill, and LB Tomacio Robinson.
“We’re excited to have those guys returning on defense. We feel like [the defense] is going to be the strength of our team,” Vance said.
In addition, the Tigers will be looking for big contributions in the secondary from newcomers Kyion Seymour and Camrun Norman. Norman, a track and field star, won a state championship in the long jump last school year.
The offensive side of the ball is the biggest question mark on this year’s team. Vance and his staff are tasked with finding replacements for seven different starting positions.
“We’re going to be who we’ve always been [on offense], but we’re not going to push the panic button if we don’t score 48 points a game,” Vance said when asked if he was going to change his scheme any this year.
Vance has yet to name a starting quarterback, and it is possible that the Tigers might use more than one quarterback Saturday night. The backfield seems to be a “running back by committee” this season with Jamal Donaldson, Nakirri Gray, and Courtland Harris all anticipated to have a share of the offensive snaps.
Despite losing numerous starters and potentially starting a few freshmen, Vance is upbeat and optimistic about this season.
“We’re going to be inexperienced in a lot of spots, but I really like this team and I think we’ll compete, we may even surprise a few people,” Vance said with a smirk.
In addition to losing 26 seniors, Vance lost a few members of his coaching staff. Vance hired former colleague Michael Dogan as the defensive coordinator, as well as Eric Gray and Jordan Marshall to coach the secondary. Eric Nelson is the new offensive line coach, and Donovan Tate was promoted from WR coach to offensive coordinator.
“It’s a part of it,” Vance said of losing coaches. “When you have a successful program everyone wants a piece of it.”
The Tigers are traveling across the Leaf River to play the Petal Panthers Saturday night to open the 2019 season. The Panthers seem to be the antithesis of Hattiesburg this season as they return most of their starters and playmakers.
The Panthers return their top four offensive threats in QB Decarlos Nicholson (1,446 yds, 11 TD), RB Micah McGowan (1,219 yds, 13 TD), RB Rashad Handford (951 yds, 13 TD), and WR Trent Williams (415 yds, 4 TD).
The defensive front seven is the strength of this team and Panthers Head Coach Marcus Boyles thinks they are among the best in the state.
“We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Vance said. “We have to play fundamentally sound football against their defense.”
Vance has been preaching to his players to just focus on getting first downs. He says if you get enough first downs, you eventually end up in the endzone.
“We don’t need to try to do too much to win this game. We just need to be who we are and we will compete and be fine,” Vance said.
Tiger fans are asked to wear white when they travel to Petal Saturday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 pm.