The Newberry Panthers took a bit of a step back in 2021. After seasons of 9-2 in 2019 and 8-2 in 2020 under coach Ed Johnson, Newberry struggled to a 5-6 mark a year ago.
The season frustratingly ended in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs with a 51-13 loss at Bradford (Starke), the third year in a row the Panthers lost in their opening playoff game.
They can look at their schedule as a major reason why. The Panthers played seven teams who advanced to the playoffs last season, including 1A state runner-up Hawthorne, 5A Wakulla (Crawfordville), 3A South Sumter (Bushnell) and 2A University Christian (Jacksonville).
Head coach Ed Johnson isn't standing pat though as he enters his fourth season at Newberry. Johnson hired two former Gator football players to his staff in the offseason.
Travis McGriff, who played wide receiver for UF from 1994-98, and Reid Fleming, who played linebacker for Florida from 2000-2003, are the new offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively.
"They both bring a lot of energy," Johnson said. "Travis and Reid bring a lot of energy and knowledge and with those two joining us I think we have the best coaching in the area."
The players have responded quickly to the new coaches as well.
"Once the players realize who they were and what they did, the kids know that they know what they are talking about," Johnson said.
The Panthers' offense will have to replace the graduated Perrion Sylvester, who was their leading receiver in 2021. Senior Mike Moore, a 2021 Mainstreet All Area honorable mention selection, returns after catching 31 balls for 463 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.
"He (Moore) is our leading receiver that's returning," Johnson said. "He's very explosive, a good route runner with good hands and he's going to make a lot of big plays for us this year."
Sophomore Keenon Johnson led Newberry with 746 yards rushing and seven touchdowns in 2021 to go along with 11 catches for 101 yards.
Senior Mike Holloway returns on the offensive line, and Johnson expects junior running back Chaden Scott to have a big year after having a few touches a year ago.
Defensively, the Panthers will be young with three sophomores but have some size up front in defensive tackles Jarquez Carter and Logan McCloud – both 2021 Mainstreet All Area honorable mention selections – and defensive end Mykah Newton.
Carter led the Panthers in most defensive categories as a freshman in 2021, rolling up 83 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Senior Jonathan Powers leads the linebacking corps. In 2021, Powers had 59 tackles, including six tackles for loss, and two sacks.
Newberry doesn't have a lot of seniors and will count on a lot of freshman and sophomores for a successful 2022 season.
The schedule still includes six playoff teams from 2021, with University Christian being replaced by P.K Yonge (Gainesville), and Fort White, Hawthorne, Union County (Lake Butler), Dixie County (Cross City), and South Sumter on the ledger. Only the Union County and Dixie County games are on the Panthers’ home field.
"We look forward to the challenge of going to Hawthorne," Johnson said. "They are the standard for 1A in our area and to be the best you have to beat the best."
Newberry also travels to Williston, who only won one game a year ago but has brought in legendary coach Robby Pruitt along with some new players that will make this a tough trip for the Panthers. But that seems to be the story of 1A football.
"1A has always had good football," Johnson said. "We don't have lot of kids in the school, but we do play good football in 1A. In rural areas —like the Newberrys, the Hawthornes, the Union Countys and the Trentons in the past — all you do is play football and go work in the watermelon fields in the summer."