SURREY — Football’s cosmic tumblers rarely fall into perfect unison.
Take Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers as an example.
Yes, the expectations are that talented rush end/tight end Malik Naherny will make his return to the team after a Grade 11 season spent rehabilitating from a torn ACL.
Yet at the same time, hard-rock running back/linebacker Colton Cameron, a program-wide heart-and-soul type, will not be with the team for his senior season, after deciding to embark on his hockey career in the BCHL.
Still, there remains too much championship pedigree within the roster of head coach Kurt Thornton’s Cloverdale-based Panthers to expect anything less than another spirited campaign challenging the province’s best at the Triple A tier.
With all that in mind, a Lord Tweedsmuir team stocked at the senior end by its 2017 Subway Bowl JV championship team, heads into September’s 2019 B.C. high school football campaign sitting at No. 3 in the preseason Varsity Letter’s coaches poll.
“I remember that in their JV season, they just jelled at the end and won that provincial title,” Thornton said earlier this week of the group that now populates the rising-Grade 12 portion of his roster. “We need that to happen this fall. Their strength is that they are good kids, kids I feel we can count on and who will everything that they can. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Make no mistake, the Panthers were gutted following a 34-16 Subway Bowl quarterfinal loss to New West last November, cutting a short a campaign which included an impressive, extended stay at No. 1 atop VL’s Big 5 AAA rankings.
Additionally, June graduation means the losses of dynamic performers like Yosef Drysdale, Kaiden Lilley, Trey Jones, Kojo Odoom, Graeme Godard and Noah Bedard.
Turning the page to a class of rising seniors, however, has not shortage of interesting plotlines, and if you were at B.C. Place Stadium back on the first Saturday of December, 2017, you may recall a Panthers team which beat Vancouver College 23-13 to repeat as B.C. AAA JV champs.
That day, starting quarterback Terrell Jones scrambled for the game’s opening touchdown, and now, after a one-season role as both a receiver and QB understudy, the 5-foot-11, 165 pound rising senior will take control of the team this coming season.
Thornton likes what Jones brings to the position, but more than that, what he represents as a total football player.
“He is more of a running quarterback than his brother (2018 starter Trey Jones), and so we are anticipating doing that more this season,” summed Thornton. “But he’s also a very physical kid. In fact he’s one of the better all-round players that we’ve had in a long time. He punts He kicks off. He’s a great receiver. And, he’s one of the better safeties we’ve had, too. He loves to come in super-hard against the run on defence.”
The fact that he has realized a need to hit the weight room even hard is another plus to the team’s upcoming fortunes.
Nathan Gernon, a provincial all-star on the defensive side of the ball at linebacker, will be one of the anchors along the offensive line, along with the likes of Dakota Lepine and Kyle Dodd.
Key to the look up front?
“I think a lot of our run game will be more perimetre-oriented than between the tackles,” Thornton says, eluding to a lighter and leaner group, which of course will extend to the defensive side of the ball as well in many aspects.
“But overall, the league seems to be getting smaller, so I don’t know how we will match up until we see the other teams,” he adds. “If we need to throw more or run more, we will, but I don’t have the 300-pounders who are such a huge presence up front.”
Playing to strength, then, it’s speed and from that aspect, rising JV receiver Jaxon Stebbings looks to be landing in an offence well-suited to his skill set.
Stebbings will not only stretch defences as a pass-catcher, there is nothing preventing Tweedsmuir from throwing some curveballs by installing him as a part-time pivot and flashing Jones out wide.
Noah Anderson, who was a huge presence last season after injuries riddled the Panthers’ offensive backfield, returns a season ahead of schedule in terms of his seasoning, as the rising senior running back looks to build on a near-800-yard rushing effort from 2018.
Defensively, the speed component is expected to transfer over from the offensive side.
Lepine and Dodd look like stalwarts on the defensive line, Gernon will do what he does best in leading the linebackers while the likes of Jones and Stebbings will populate an athletic secondary.
The wild card?
Naherny’s ability to add a blue-chip pass rush from his defensive end spot, despite the fact he hasn’t played since helping Lord Tweedsmuir to that B.C. JV title in December of 2017.
He hasn’t yet been able to join the group for spring practices, yet with caution being shown, Naherny has the potential to be a prime force on a team looking to make up for the loss of Cameron.
And if you go back to the 2017 JV AAA final, you can actually mention the two players in the same breath.
Cameron’s second TD of that game came off a 48-yard rush to make it 23-13 with eight minutes remaining, and later, Naherny made that two-score lead seem even more daunting when he first batted, then intercepted an Irish pass deep in the red zone.
“Malik is a ridiculous athlete,” added Thornton. “He’s a great defensive end, but we’re also hoping to use him as a Gronkowski-type of guy who sometimes lines up out wide, and sometimes lines up in the slot.”
All week long, we’ve talked about discovering team identity.
In the case of the Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers, however, all you need to do is look at the past successes of its rising senior class to know they have the potential to re-discover something that has already proven itself to be very special.
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