The Breakdown: Pontotoc @ Houston
Players to Watch:
Austin Morphis: Second in all-purpose yards behind the currently-injured Gabe Harmon last season was Austin Morphis. Morphis is a do-it-all athlete that led the Warriors in receiving yards a season ago and was tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with ten. He is fast, athletic, has great hands and can extend plays and find the end zone on any given down. He was an integral part of Pontotoc’s historic campaign a season ago, and his playmaking ability and leadership could launch the Warriors deep into the 4A postseason once again.
Immanuel Vance: With the injury of Gabe Harmon last spring, Immanuel Vance has stepped up to take over the lead tailback spot for the Warriors. Fortunately for Pontotoc fans, Vance is seasoned in this role and can probably pick up a lot of the slack left by the absence of Harmon. Vance rushed for 564 yards last season and 7 touchdowns, and he will get a lot of touches tonight against a potentially rebuilding Houston front-seven.
Hayden Harris: Only behind two seniors, Harris finished third on the team in total tackles a season ago with 152. Harris is a talented athlete that is in this Pontotoc junior class and will make an impact for the Warriors over the course of the next two seasons. He is listed at 5’11 and 205 on the scale, making him an ideal linebacker. Harris’ performance tonight could go a long way in corralling the talent of Hilltoppers like Uriah Shephard.
Taylor Hughes: One of the best quotes of the week came from Hughes to SES President Webb Lewis. Hughes said of the night of Pontotoc’s jamboree, “I think I heard, ‘Dude, that’s a girl,’ about 50 times.” That’s right. The Warriors have a female lacing up the cleats and kicking footballs for them this season, but she is very good. A soccer and volleyball star by trade, Hughes has quickly become one of the most intriguing stories in the Magnolia State this offseason and will continue to be one as the season gets rolling. Everyone will be keeping an eye on her throughout the year, which may bring a lot of pressure. We’ll see how it unfolds.
Urriah Shephard: Uriah Shephard has the potential to be one of the most prolific players in North Mississippi this season. Shephard last year played a breed of quarterback that is not very common but is effective when a person of his talent takes the snaps. Shephard passed for 1,158 yards and 12 touchdowns along with rushing for 1,081 yards and 13 touchdowns. So, Uriah Shephard accounted for 2,239 yards and 25 Hilltopper touchdowns. These insane numbers have not gone unnoticed by outside coaches and programs, however. The Warriors’ defense has surely prepared heavily for Shephard. The question is: will it be enough?
Zykiel Virges: Last season, Zykiel Virges was a staple of the Topper secondary, recording five interceptions. Virges also hauled in three touchdown receptions as a wide receiver in 2016, making him a threat on both sides of the football. The Warriors would be wise to cover Virges heavily when he’s on offense, but more importantly be wary of throwing to his side of the field when he is in the defensive secondary.
Bobby Townsend: As a freshman last season, Bobby Townsend showed glimpses of greatness. Townsend rushed for 350 yards and two touchdowns, had 69 tackles as a defender and caught one interception. For a Houston team that has to replace a lot of its defensive talent in 2017, Townsend could be a huge help throughout the course of the season. After a year under his belt, we could also see him get more touches in the ground game.
Jalen May: Jalen May led the Toppers in receiving yards last season with 309 and caught two touchdowns. He is entering his junior campaign, and will likely be a prime target for Uriah Shephard tonight and throughout the season. May also intercepted a pass last season and could also help Houston replace some key talent lost a season ago.
Keys to the Game:
Houston and Pontotoc’s home-and-home agreement has produced some interesting games the last number of seasons, including last year’s 24-14 victory for Pontotoc. This game has turned into a matchup that we as football fans look forward to each opening weekend. One of the headlining attractions this weekend is Uriah Shephard. Shephard had an amazing season in 2016 and is set to repeat it this year. He is a defense’s worst nightmare. Trying to contain him through the air will get you burned on the ground. Trying to contain him on the ground will get you burned in the air. Can Pontotoc find a recipe to quiet Mr. Shephard, or will he shred the Warriors’ defense?
Speaking of defense, let’s not forget that the Toppers have quite a fight on their hands as well. Houston has to try to stop the likes of Austin Morphis and Immanuel Vance (who is replacing the injured Gabe Harmon) without 7 of their eight leading tacklers from a season ago. There will be help in the secondary with the likes of Zykiel Virges, but there is a lot about this Houston defense that is still unknown. Tonight will be a big indicator about what changes, if any, need to happen on the defensive side of the ball for the Toppers to be successful.
Although all of this physical play is important, perhaps equally as important is the battle of the nerves. It’s opening weekend. There’s a lot of pressure. One of the most important factors in tonight’s game involves the players trying to relax. The atmosphere will be electric and emotions will be running high. Whichever team can channel that energy to its advantage will win tonight.
Since star-quarterback Jacob Carter graduated, the Warriors have a hole to fill in the signal-caller position. Pontotoc is expected to use two quarterbacks early on in the season until the starting role is settled. Quarterbacks London Jordan and Justin Carter will likely both receive playing time tonight against the Hilltoppers. Jordan gained experience as a backup quarterback last season, but Justin Carter is the brother of the aforementioned Jacob Carter. Can the Warriors successfully perform with two different men leading their offense?