The magic has returned around Nease Panthers football program following last year’s deep postseason run to the Class 7A regional championship.
This year’s squad now looks to keep the momentum going and keep the bar of expectations raised high.
On the offensive side of the ball the Panthers are led by a returning cast that includes University of Florida commit Marcus Stokes at quarterback, Samuel Milton at running back and wide receiver Da’von Patterson.
Stokes and the offense both came into its own last year, and he returns as the operator of the high-flying passing attack.
He has the necessary tools to run head coach Collin Drafts offensive scheme, which features a lot of high tempo mixed with multiple receiver sets designed to spread out and pressure defenses.
“I love to go fast and have a high tempo during the game because it really throws off the defenses,” Stokes said.
However, losing 36 seniors from last year’s team is something Stokes understands may take some time to adjust to, and that includes the group’s comfortability when tempo is pushed.
“Our team is still really young, and we’ve brought some kids up, and it’s just not as fast of a game at junior varsity,” Stokes said. “I think after week one, we’ll all be ready to go.”
Drafts, who played quarterback himself approaches each game with an attacking mindset, which is something Stokes believes suits him as well and one of the main reasons why the two seem to always be on the same wavelength when it comes to play calling and the nature of the position.
“When it comes to getting excited and energetic, I think coach Drafts and I kind of have of the same personality, which is cool to have,” Stokes said. “Our relationship is really good, and it’s built up these past few years, to the point where I know what he’s thinking, and he knows what I’m thinking.”
Three of Stokes’ go-to wide receivers last season graduated, which has opened the door for Patterson and company to step into even more prominent roles in the offense this season.
Patterson’s quickness is what makes him such a weapon, especially when it comes to stretching the field or making people miss in open space to create opportunities for big plays and extra yards.
Landon Patterson, Brendan Monty and Gavin Gmeiner are also senior receivers looking to increase their production with more playing time.
Monty presents a big target for Stokes at 6-feet-2-inches.
Growing the relationships with his receivers is something Stokes has worked on, and he hopes the results on the field will reflect that.
“All of our receivers have varsity experience, but it has definitely taken some getting used to, knowing that you don’t have Dom (Henry), Grant (Stevens) and Donavan (Wilson) out there to throw to,” Stokes said.
Helping take some of the pressure off the passing game will be the Panthers rushing attack, which features senior Samuel Milton as the starting back heading into the year.
Milton showcased his ability during his junior year after having to fight his way back from a lengthy recovery from COVID-19 as a sophomore.
“I had actually suffered from MIC (multisystem inflammatory syndrome), and I was in the hospital for about a month and the ICU for about a week,” Milton said. “I suffered really bad from heart and lung shutdown, but I was cleared in the spring (2021).”
However, Milton did not let that set him back from becoming a fixture in the backfield.
“I really had to grind to earn my spot back,” Milton said. “I feel like I can do even better this season because I didn’t really have an offseason heading into my junior year. This is going to be my breakout year.”
Having gone through what he did, he feels like it has made him even more hungry to do well on the football field, and that is something you can tell in the determined nature with which he runs the football.
“It kind of gave me a perspective about the time that we have left, and especially with it being my senior year, I really want to take advantage of it,” Milton said.
“We’re mainly a player-led team, and that seems to be working out really well,” Milton said.
Paving the way for Milton is the Panthers’ offensive front, which includes the likes of seniors Nick Severt, Paden Pinder and Ben McGuinness.
The veteran line will not only open up running lanes, but also look to provide a consistently comfortable pocket for Stokes to survey the field and make plays.
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