With the kickoff of the 2014 high school football season quickly approaching, our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. Here is the latest installment of our Camp Countdown:
The first day of practice in full pads, Paint Branch’s players felt uncomfortable. The pants didn’t fit quite right, and they were hotter than expected. For Coach Mike Nesmith, the practice offered him a chance to better evaluate his green team. It was the first time he saw the first-team offense against the first-team defense.
There were some hiccups throughout the practice, the occasional botched snap and fumble, but that was expected with the inexperience the Panthers have on both sides of the ball. Though just four starters from last season’s 11-2 team are back, Nesmith’s expectation for the Panthers is still to make the playoffs. Paint Branch opens the season against Springbrook at home on Sept. 5.
“With a young team like this, we could have a fantastic year, or we could struggle early on,” Nesmith said. “But the expectations are the playoffs every year.”
The Panthers will have to replace prolific quarterback Gaston Cooper, who threw for 3,190 yards and 40 touchdowns. He tallied 61 total touchdowns, also rushing for 609 yards. Junior Armani Ceballos is expected to be the starter this season, and he’s similar to Cooper in that he’s also a dual threat.
Ceballos stepped in for Cooper in a game last season when Cooper was sidelined for a series with a cramp, and Nesmith was impressed with how poised Ceballos was in that situation.
“He’s capable of running our offense really well,” Nesmith said. “We’re not expecting him to be Gaston. We just want him to be Armani, but we think he’ll be a strong quarterback for us the next two years.”
Ceballos will only have an inexperienced receiving corps around him. Javonn Curry, who had 1,170 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns to earn first-team All-Met honors, is another big loss to graduation for the Panthers. Senior Ryan Stango had 667 receiving yards last season for eight touchdowns, and he will be Ceballos’s top target this season. Another starting receiver will be Fanta Fanta, who saw limited playing time last season but recorded 112 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Nesmith said Ceballos would get frustrated last year when he saw players make mistakes running routes, and coaches started to teach him the leadership side of being a quarterback because of that. Nesmith said Ceballos is starting to realize what it takes, and his teammates have confidence in him.
“It’s just maturity,” Stango said of Ceballos. “It’s knowing the reads, knowing when to be coached, and taking criticism. He’ll be a good quarterback.”
Paint Branch returns its starting running back from last season, Darryl Hill Jr. Hill had 407 rushing yards for seven touchdowns and also had two touchdown receptions. Nesmith said he will be leaned on more this season with a new quarterback at the helm.
Junior linebackers Jordan Hill and Travis Armbruster have stood out on defense. Though the defense is also inexperienced, a lot of the younger players were on the team last year and benefitted from a full season of practice, even though they didn’t play.
“We’ve just been leading by example and just doing the right thing because we know the other guys are going to follow us,” Hill Jr. said. “The seniors have to be leaders and role models for the younger guys.”