Coach Greg Cavanah led the Portland football team to its first winning season since 2005 last season. Although the Panthers were throttled 50-6 by Jackson North Side in the opening round, their 6-5 record showed significant progress in Cavanah’s fifth season.
The Panthers are hoping that taste of success wasn’t fleeting. An experienced roster with 19 returning lettermen is highlighted by senior quarterback Caleb Mandrell, who rushed for 1,488 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2018.
“Experience is the best teacher, and that’s definitely true in football,” Cavanah said. “The more experience you have, the better you expect your squad to be.”
Portland will go as far as Mandrell does. The dual-threat quarterback benefited from a veteran offensive line and several talented skill players last year, and many of those weapons are back. Cavanah said he expects Mandrell to continue to put up big rushing numbers with the read option.
“Caleb did an outstanding job last year,” Cavanah said. “He did a lot with his legs. I foresee him running more option this year and being more of a play-action passer than a drop-back passer.”
Cade Box, Dylan Gulley and Devyn Fuqua return to lead the rushing attack with Mandrell. Because of Portland’s Wing-T offense, each player should see their fair share of carries.
Box, who Cavanah said has also been the team’s most “sure-handed” receiver this offseason, will line up out wide. Newcomer Darius Bell, who also plays basketball, will start at split end. Big-bodied tight end Caleb Allen and receivers Freddy Paxton Jr., Braylon Dowlen and Charles Mitchell could be other targets for Mandrell.
Four of the five Portland offensive linemen are returning starters. That bunch includes 2018 All-Sumner County second teamer Malachi Bostic at right guard. Thomas Rodriquez and Garrett Smith return at the tackle spots, while seniors Ray Betancur and Kyren Hawk are battling to start at left guard. Waylon Mullen will take over at center for the graduated James Tice.
Cavanah said he believes the offense is ahead of the defense entering the final stretch of the preseason.
“We may have to lean on our offense early until our defense comes around,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got a chance to increase our passing yards. I liked the pass blocking we saw out of our offensive line this spring.”
On the other side of the ball, Rodriquez and Logan Summers will play defensive tackle. Bostic, Hawk and Aaron Faulkner are expected to rotate at defensive end.
Allen, Fuqua, Mikeal Dykes and Braxton Cole make up the linebacking corps. In the secondary, Bell and Mitchell are battling for the strong safety duties. Senior Jovie Lugo will start at free safety and serve as the kicker. Box and Gulley are trying to hold off sophomore Lecyrus House and junior Evan Towles for the two starting cornerback positions.
Cavanah said Bell, Box and Patxon could each return kicks and punts. Mandrell will be the punter when he fails to help the offense pick up a first down.
Five of Portland’s first six games will be on the road, including the Aug. 23 opener against Edmondson County (Ky.) in the Warren East Bowl in Bowling Green. The Panthers will make the two-hour drive to Forrest Aug. 30 before their home opener, an all-important region game against Montgomery Central Sept. 6.
“To win a state championship, you’ve got to go on the road,” Cavanah said. “That’s the way it fell out this year. We’ll see what we can get accomplished between the (opener) and our first home game against Montgomery Central.”
Should the Panthers emerge from the five early road tests in decent shape, they have the talent to make a run at the Region 5-4A title, especially if the experienced cast can mesh with the newcomers.
“It’s starting to click a little bit,” Cavanah said. “I don’t know how tough we are. We’ll find out when we get going.”
Head coach: Greg Cavanah
Record: 14-38, 6th season
Assistants: Mark Nelson, Doug Guelde, Tony Adams, Wes Inman, Jimmy Parker, Ryan Smith
Caleb Mandrell (QB)
Cade Box (RB/CB)
Devyn Fuqua (FB/LB)
Dylan Gulley (RB/CB)
Jovie Lugo (FS/K)