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High school football previews: Panthers reverting to power game

Michael Smith
The Examiner
The Examiner

It will be full speed ahead for Pat Richard and his Oak Grove football team when it starts the 2020 season Friday.

Instead of preparing for a minimum of 10 games, there is uncertainty whether the Panthers or any Missouri program will be to get in a full season due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could cut it short. With that in mind, there’s a certain mindset Richard wants the Panthers to have.

“It’s a sprint,” Richard said. “We are going to play every game like it’s the last one we’re going to play because it could be.”

The Panthers may need that attitude in order to improve on a 2019 season in which they finished 4-6 and suffered a first-round loss to Boonville in the district playoffs.

Oak Grove returns seven players who played at least three games or more last season on both sides of the ball.

“A lot of these juniors have started since they were freshmen, so it’s exciting to bring this group back,” Richard said. “It’s a small group of seniors but it’s a good group.

Junior quarterback Hunter Jones will lead the offense a year after he split time at the position with graduate Brenden Marsh. In 2019, Jones completed 77 of 139 passes (55 percent completion percentage) for 1,049 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Jones mainly operates as a pocket passer for the offense and has shown improvement in summer camps and practices, Richard said.

“He has dramatically improved,” Richard said. “The one thing about having all this COVID time, is to get on Zoom and Hudl together, and do things from a mental standpoint to get him better. When we had offensive line meetings, he was at every minute. He attended over 120 meetings during quarantine.”

Jones improved physically, too.

“He’s gotten a lot stronger and he can throw the ball a little bit,” Panther starting center Sam Jennings said.

Jones will be aided by a large group of running backs that will take turns carrying the ball. That will be in contrast to what the Panthers did last year when they leaned on graduate Clay Griffin to carry the load. He finished with 861 yards and 12 touchdowns on 143 carries.

This year, up to seven ball carriers could be used and Oak Grove will ride the hot hand as the season progresses. Some of those guys include Clynton Stewart, Jamison Kirk, Adrian Whitehead, Carson Smith and Jacob Andell. Among the returners, Whitehead led with 181 yards and three TDs.

“This is the most running back depth that we’ve had in years,” Richard said. “There’s a toughness in that group.”

Blocking for the running backs and Jones will be five returning starters. Coming back to the offense line are Zander Brinegar, Caleb Groff, Jennings, Garrett Hudspeth and Matt Brown. Aaron Hensley will aid them at tight end.

“We are getting back to having big, physical kids who can force their will on opponents a little bit,” Richard said. “Our running game is going to be our strength.”

Added Jennings: “We have gotten a lot better at our combo blocks and hitting at the pad level and staying low.”

In the passing game, it will be a corps of new players catching passes from Jones. Wide receivers Silas Hicks, Ricardo Delgado and the 6-foot-3 Kaden Weir will give Oak Grove some good weapons on the outside, Richard said.

The defense has many of the same players returning too. Hudspeth, Weir, Groff, Hensley and Brinegar will see time on the defensive line. Newcomers Jacob Shoemaker and Chayton Kellum likely will play up front as well.

“We’ve got some speed coming off the edge but I think we are going to be a lot better against the run and we have to be,” Richard said.

Whitehead, Kirk, Stewart and newcomer Brendan Griffin likely will be the team’s linebackers. In the secondary Andell and returning starter Haiden Armstrong will be the cornerbacks and Hicks and Delgado will be the safeties. And Carsen Smith will see time at linebacker and safety.

“(The linebackers) have gotten a lot stronger,” Hicks said. “They will be able to take the hits better and get to their holes easier to make tackles.”

With a good amount of starters coming back, Richard hopes to return to the smash-mouth style of football that brought Oak Grove a lot of success in the mid-2010s, including a state title in 2014.

“We are getting back to who we used to be as a town and as a program,” Richard said. “We are getting away from things which we are not, which is finesse.”

Panthers at a glance

Head coach: Pat Richard (ninth season, 63-40 at Oak Grove, 161-66 overall).

Assistant coaches: Jamie Scully, Ethan Grumke, Sam Ellifrits, James Morgan, Garrett Higbee, Skylar Hulse, Wayne McGinnis, John Lindmark, Trevor Howard, Josh Howk.

2019 record: 4-6 (2-3 Missouri River Valley Conference West).

Returning letter-winners: 17

Returning offensive starters: Hunter Jones, 6-3, 174, jr., QB; Jamison Kirk, 6-1, 191, jr. RB; Adrian Whitehead, 5-11, 189, jr., FB; Clynton Stewart, 6-0, 186, jr., RB; Zander Brinegar, 5-9, 224, jr., OL; Sam Jennings, 6-1, 244, sr., OL; Garrett Hudspeth, 5-9, 248, jr., OL; Mathew Brown, 6-0, 248, soph., OL.

Returning defensive starters: Haiden Armstrong, 5-10, 161, jr., DB; Adrian Whitehead, 5-11, 189, jr., LB; Clynton Stewart, 6-0, 186, jr., LB; Zander Brinegar, 5-9, 224, jr., DL; Ricardo Delgado, 6-0, 164, sr., FS/K; Garrett Hudspeth, 5-9, 248, jr., DL; Silas Hicks, 5-9, 152, sr., S.

Others to watch: Jacob Andell, 5-10, 164, sr., DB/RB; Carson Smith, 6-0, 173, jr., DB/RB; Caleb Groff, 6-0, 272, soph., OL/DL; Jacob Shoemaker, 6-0, 248, jr. OL/DL; Aaron Hensley, 5-10, 184, jr., TE/DE; Kaiden Weir, 6-3, 200, jr., TE/DE; Chayton Kellum, 5-7, 160, sr., DL.