The Portland football team more than doubled its point production from 2017 to 2018, jumping from 9.4 points per game two years ago to 22 per game last season.
This year, senior quarterback Caleb Mandrell, several key skill players and most of the offensive line are back. It’s reasonable to assume that the Portland offense could take another step forward in 2019.
“We’re getting better,” coach Greg Cavanah said. “We had some pretty hard-hitting scrimmages during spring (practice). I think that helped us a little bit. We are improving each and every day.”
Everything begins with Mandrell. The dual-threat signal caller rushed for 1,807 yards and 23 touchdowns and passed for 671 yards and eight scores in 2018. Cavanah said he thinks Mandrell and the offense can be more dynamic this season.
“From the first time he went in to what he can do now, it’s unbelievable,” Cavannah said. “He knows our offense and does a good job of running it. If we give him a little bit more time, I believe he will complete more passes this year.”
Mandrell grew up playing running back but was moved behind center when he got to high school. Adapting to the position has been a slow process, but Mandrell, who has received interest from The Citadel, Tennessee Tech and Western Kentucky, said he improved his passing ability over the offseason.
“I’ve played running back my whole life,” he said. “I’d like to pass a lot more. I’ve been working on it since freshman year, and I think I’ve gotten better.”
The addition of 6-foot-6 basketball player Darius Bell will provide another vertical option. Senior wing back Cade Box has another year of experience under his belt, as do wing back Dylan Gulley and fullback Devyn Fuqua, who are also threats in the passing game.
But what makes Portland’s offense effective is the deceptive read option that Mandrell runs as part of the team’s Wing-T system. After a snap, Mandrell could hand the ball to a back, throw to a receiver or take it himself. Defenses are often confused because the first steps of each play look the same.
“It keeps (opponents) flowing toward motion,” Mandrell said. “Two people could have the ball, so they don’t know which one to go for. It’s a guessing game (for defenses).”
Added Cavanah: “We practice that quite a bit. We’re known to run anything at any time, so we’re kind of surprising. And it’s not just Caleb, he’s surrounded with some good athletes. You have to defend us all over in the field, in my opinion.”
Of course, the offense will not work without a strong offensive line. That group could include as many as four returning starters, led by 2018 All-Sumner County second team guard Malachi Bostic. Thomas Rodriguez and Garrett Smith are expected to play tackle, while seniors Ray Betancur and Kyren Hawk are fighting for the left guard position. Senior Waylon Mullen is the new center.
“It’s good to be able to reply on them,” Cavanah said. “We’ve built a little depth by getting our younger kids some work. Right now, they are making the final push for those starting positions.”
Portland backed its way into the playoffs with three straight losses to Macon County, Springfield and Creek Wood last season. That slump carried into the postseason, where the Panthers were trounced by Jackson North Side 50-6 in the first round.
Mandrell said the team has learned from that experience and wants to avoid repeating it.
“We came off a 6-4 run into (the playoffs), and I think (the loss) humbled us,” Mandrell said. “We went in there with big heads. We’re going to have to respect all and fear none this year.”