A year ago the expectations were high at Tim Tebow’s old stomping grounds.
Nease was coming off its first winning football season (7-4) in seven years, its first district title in eight years — clinched with an overtime win against county rival St. Augustine — and a potentially motivating 49-42 playoff loss in the final seconds to Panhandle power Fort Walton Beach Chotawhatchee.
The Panthers were returning five first- or second-team All-County players and seemed determined to show the Yellow Jackets and the world that 2015 was not a fluke.
Then the bottom fell out. They limped to a 3-6 record on the field in 2016. To add insult to injury, the FHSAA ruled two of their wins forfeits for inadvertently dressing an ineligible player. Nease self-reported the infraction.
So what’s next? The Panthers have turned the clock back two calendar years to a time when they were hungry.
“Two years ago we had strong team leadership, and I feel like we knew what our goals were,” said senior receiver Ashton Wood, who was an All-County first-teamer in 2015. “We had something to prove to people. We went out there and did what we had to do. Last year we kind of thought we were the same team that won districts. We were kind of cocky in a way. We kind of walked in thinking, ‘OK we won districts last year.’ We didn’t go in there as one unit going towards a goal. We’re back to having something to prove this year for sure.”
Head coach Tim Krause said the Panthers played well at times but when momentum started going against them, “we didn’t respond real well.”
Tight end Zach Sheffer, who committed in June to LSU over Ohio State and a host of other elite programs, can already see a difference.
“Last year, in the final sprint of a practice, someone jogs on it,” Sheffer said. “This year it’s just so much better. Our energy is great, even in this Florida weather. The little things make a huge difference, and we’re fixing all of them.”
Seniors Wood, Sheffer, running back Jareem Westcott and cornerback Kenny Whitehead, not wanting to leave anything on the field, are expecting to play both ways this season to provide the team more depth.
“I’ve been trying to play both ways for a while now, and Coach is letting me this year,” said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Sheffer. “Our defense is really good without the guys going both ways, but if someone needs a break, a goal-line package or something like that, we can run in there and help.”
The Panthers also return senior defensive lineman Johnny Bogle (15 tackles for loss), who has committed to Eastern Carolina, and offensive guard Eric Von Almen, a third-year starter.
Westcott rushed for 580 yards last year and scored seven touchdowns, but he often got hit in the backfield and couldn’t find running room. He said there already has been a marked improvement in blocking by an offensive line that returns Von Almen, tackle Payton Ryan and center Michael Roark, among others.
“In practice there’s a wide open hole and I run right through it,” Westcott said. “They’re making it easier for me.”
A productive Westcott and sure-handed receivers like Sheffer and Wood should smooth the transition for junior quarterback Preston Staples, who has the daunting task of replacing three-year starter Leighton Alley, who passed for 36 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards in his career.
“Jareem is a really talented back,” Krause said. “He’s versatile. He catches well out of the backfield and he can be a downhill guy or be pretty shifty.”
Sheffer was Nease’s leading receiver last year with 45 catches for 607 yards and five touchdowns. A consensus national top-30 tight end, Sheffer wants to do even more this year — block, line up at tight end, split end or slot and also help out at linebacker and defensive end.
His teammates say they haven’t seen anything he can’t do.
“Preston can just throw the ball up and Zach will make a play, even if he’s not open,” Westcott said.
“He has the best hands in the county in my opinion,” Wood said of Sheffer. “He’s a great leader too, and I haven’t seen anyone in high school block harder than Zach. And people don’t notice it, either. We’re on a sweep to the left side and on film the following Monday, Zach on the back side is on top of some kid 10 yards downfield. He works until he hears the whistle.”
The Panthers have learned little things make a difference.