Nease got its feet wet for the 2017 season with its preseason Kickoff Classic against the Yulee Hornets last Friday at Yulee. The Panthers came away with a 25-14 win, and now have bigger fish to fry heading into their season opener against the rival Ponte Vedra Sharks.
With the starters playing the first half, the Panthers set the tone early on both sides of the ball. The defense, led by Kenny Whitehead, Trey Ragin, Nick Witherspoon and Jacob Allsup, contributed a sack and forced a turnover in the first quarter. On offense, quarterback Preston Staples had a long pass reception to Dylan Patricolo to put Nease at first-and-goal, and running back Jareem Westcott punched it in with a little more than a minute remaining in the first quarter to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
Nease coach Tim Krause said he saw room for improvement during the scrimmage, but was also encouraged by his team’s toughness.
“In preseason situations, everybody’s going to be sloppy,” Krause said. “You kind of go into it expecting that a little bit, not that you can tolerate that, but understand there’s going to be some mistakes and we sure made some tonight, but I felt like overall, we played really hard. There’s always growth in failure, too, so we get to take the things we messed up on a little bit and work on it, put in on film and practice for next week.”
The Hornets got on the board with a touchdown in the second quarter, but the Panthers padded their lead when Staples threw a deep pass to Ashton Wood for a touchdown, and Collin Hartley kicked a field goal to put Nease up 19-7. The Panthers’ defense closed out the first half on a high note, sacking Yulee quarterback Brandon Kline and forcing a turnover with one second left.
Staples looked solid in his starting performance after taking over for standout Leighton Alley, who graduated in May.
“He’s a much different player than Leighton, and anytime you’re replacing a three-year starter who has played as much football as Leighton, it’s a challenge to find your identity,” Krause said of Staples. “But he’s done a great job through the offseason, and did a good job in fall camp so we’re excited going forward.”
Yulee closed the gap with a TD in the third, but the highlight of the quarter was a 55-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Whitehead to give the Panthers a 25-14 lead. The Hornets had a long touchdown pass called back on an eligible receiver penalty. The backups took over in the third quarter for Nease, and Krause was pleased with what he saw.
“I felt like our young guys really competed hard,” he said. “We got in a lot of good reps with those guys, especially the way they played out there on the defensive side. They created turnovers, held their own and did a really nice job.”
The Panthers finished last season with a disappointing 2-7 record after making the playoffs and going undefeated in the district in 2015, but Krause said the team is just focused on what’s ahead.
“As a coaching staff, as players, as a team, I think we spent the offseason kind of putting last year to bed and moving on with what we have this year,” Krause said. “We’re really excited with what our senior class is like and how they’re going to lead us. That’s the biggest thing we’re looking for, is guys that understand the expectation here is to win and to play really hard.”
The Panthers kick off the 2017 season at 7 p.m. Friday at Ponte Vedra.
“We’re excited to get the chance to go play a real football game,” Krause said of Friday night’s rivalry matchup. “Obviously when you play a team like that, there’s added emotion on both sides and added energy and it makes it fun to coach in. That’s what you want as a player and as a coach, a challenge and an environment that excites you and an environment that makes you want to win, so we’re really excited about that.”