Newberry football coach Ed Johnson is back for his third season with the Panthers after back-to-back winning seasons and Class 1A state playoff berths the past two years.
Johnson, who has guided Newberry to a 17-5 record, said the postseason is the minimum expectation.
“Find a way to the playoffs,” he said. “If you can make the playoffs, anything can happen. That’s the expectation, but we definitely want to get over that hump. We haven’t been able to get one of those playoff wins.”
The biggest challenge for the Panthers in 2021 is finding a replacement for All Area Honorable Mention quarterback, and Johnson’s son, Makai Johnson.
Makai threw and ran for a combined 1,600 yards and 24 touchdowns in leading the Panthers to an 8-3 record last year.
“I think we’re going to miss his leadership the most,” Johnson said. “He brought it every single day. But that’s high school sports. Kids are going to graduate every year and you’ve got to find a way to replace them and try to get somebody to do the job.”
The Panthers are looking to center Lee Hodges for that leadership role this year.
“He’s the captain of our offense,” Johnson said. “He takes charge from that center position. He’s definitely a guy that we can depend on every single day.”
Johnson said the offensive line is a team strength heading into the 2021 season.
“We’ve got a few guys coming back, some seniors who have been on that line three or four years that know what it takes,” Johnson said. “They’ve worked hard all summer. If we can run the ball up front, I think we’ll have a successful season.”
As far as a position replacement at quarterback, it’s a two-man battle in fall camp between rising junior Trae Butler (5-foot-8, 150 pounds), last year’s back-up, and rising senior Brandon Hamilton (6-foot-2, 225), who had not played the position coming into this year.
While the offense learns to find its way, the defense will be in good hands.
“I’m excited about the defense,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of kids coming back on that side of the ball. Kids that are hungry fly to the ball and we’re definitely going to lean on them, especially early in the season.”
Senior Thad Rucker (6-foot-2, 195), who will play safety and linebacker, is expected to have a bigger role this season.
“Our defense is going to be our strong point,” Rucker said. “We have a bunch of stacked seniors. If the other team can’t score, we can’t lose. That’s our mentality right now.”
Julius Johnson, who will play linebacker and fullback, said his personal goal is to have 100-plus tackles this year.
“I think I’ve improved a lot coming from defensive line to linebacker,” Julius said, adding it’s always been a goal of his to play linebacker. “I feel like I’ve been working hard enough to give it a shot. I feel like I can be a stud at linebacker.”
Hodges said that the offense just needs to figure out what they can consistently do. Until they do, he’s got a lot of confidence in the defense.
“Last year in a lot of our earlier games, we had to convert on turnovers in the red zone,” Hodges said. “So hopefully this year we can kind of get our offense going early and be more consistent. I think we need to run the ball consistently to be successful.”
This will be a young team so Johnson said his team will have to continue to get better throughout the season.
“Day to day, week by week, rep by rep, we’re going to play a lot of young kids this year,” he said. “Those kids will get introduced to high school football, the successes and the failures, and if they can handle those things and take it week by week, then I think we will have a really successful year.”
Newberry will open up the regular season at Alachua County rival Santa Fe (Alachua) on Friday, Aug. 27.
2021 Newberry Football Schedule
Aug. 20 – at Wildwood (Kickoff Classic)
Aug. 27 – at Santa Fe (Alachua)
Sept. 3 – vs. Fort White
Sept. 10 – vs. P.K. Yonge (Gainesville)
Sept. 17 – vs. Hawthorne
Sept. 24 – at Palatka
Oct. 1 – vs. Williston
Oct. 14 – at Eastside (Gainesville)
Oct. 22 – vs. Dixie County (Cross City)
Oct. 29 – at Union County (Lake Butler)
Nov. 5 – vs. South Sumter (Bushnell)