September 8, 2020
Every Friday in the fall, Panther Nation shows up to see their very own football team come out and play the game. Behind the scenes, the team grinds and grinds to achieve success. Their goals this year? Win a 5th consecutive region championship, and contend for a state championship.
That journey begins with four non-region games. Every year the Panthers have a tradition of scheduling four tough opponents to get their team ready for region. This season is no different, including playing East Coweta, one of the largest schools in the state, and Sandy Creek, a traditionally mighty opponent. These non-region games should serve as indicators for the Panthers prior to their region games.
What is to take away from these games? That is what The Prowler is here to provide. Every week, The Prowler will issue three takeaways from the previous week’s game to provide analysis. We intend to follow the team’s every pass, run, tackle, and score through season 23.
Come back every Tuesday for a new installment of “Gameday Takeaways.”
Gameday Takeaways, Week 1
Three points from promising showdown
In the season opener for Panther football, they traveled to East Coweta to face off against the Indians. Starr’s Mill showed up to play, but came up short in a 21-20 loss. Here are three takeaways from that telling game.
Offense proved themselves
All offseason long, there were various questions being asked about the offense due to the losses of the skill players from the previous year, including Hunter Lawson, and the one-two punch that was Kalen Sims and Ben Bodne. A lot of work has been done to reconstruct the offense. Last Thursday, Panther Nation got its answer — the offense can play well, even if they are still somewhat raw.
Sophomore quarterback Will Yarbrough made his name known in his first start of the season. His greatest contribution was in the passing games with six completions for 127 yards and two touchdowns. This could indicate that his passing abilities could be implemented in this newly constructed offense.
“I think that this game was a very big learning opportunity for me,” Yarbrough said. “Starting out, I messed up on a few things and now, as I’m playing the game, it helps me understand what I’m supposed to do.”
The running game was still as stout as ever in this game, but a new face led the charge this week. In his first ever start, senior Devin Barnett made his presence known with 11 carries for 128 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Even with the new flair, the offense still kept with the tried and true tradition of maintaining the majority of possession time.
This new offense was not without its problems, however. The offense lost three fumbles, two of those coming from Yarbrough. Despite reaching the doorstep of victory in overtime, their final play was indication that they still have some things to adjust to.
Defense has not skipped a beat
Consisting of stars such as seniors Wes Haney and Duke commit Cole Bishop as well as junior Marc Stampley and Barrett Schmidlkofer, there was no real cause for concern with the Panther defense. Their presence against East Coweta looked as large as ever. The Indians converted only 30% of third downs, were limited in drive length to an average of 1:57, and remained scoreless for three quarters of play.
What makes these numbers interesting is the sheer size difference between schools. You have Starr’s Mill, one of the smallest schools in 5A with numbers on par with 4A, bolstering a defense that could rival East Coweta, one of the largest populated schools in the state of Georgia. It’s impressive that this defense can hold down a school with a much larger player pool than their own.
Their performance was not extremely flashy. Rather, their performance was definitively substance over style. Keeping that offense in check so that their numbers are not too far from the numbers of the new Panther offensive is impressive. The defense clearly demonstrated why they are meant to be feared, and laid out an indicative blueprint on where to go from here.
Gutsy final play reaction speaks volumes about the team’s soul
Last year in the state playoff quarterfinals, the Panthers went for a dangerous two-point conversion that worked and punched their ticket to the state semifinals. This season, in a similar situation, a two-point conversion did not work out, and they lost the game because of it. Head coach Chad Phillips explained that his decision came from the fact that the team was out of gas. He wanted to make the gamble instead of trudging the already exhausted offense back on the field.
What this decision shows is that the offense still does need to iron out a few of the kinks. In that instance, the team did in fact have the right play call. However, the heavy blitz led Yarbrough to rush and chuck the ball, which was immediately batted down. For the Panthers, it was on to the next game after the whistle blew.
“Monday morning at 7 a.m., we’re back at it getting ready for game two,” Phillips said. “We’ll watch film, the coaches will grade it, evaluate it, and we’ll make corrections. We’ll show the boys the film, we’ll get on the field and fix the things that need to be fixed, and we’ll be better next week.”
It is the attitude of determination that the coaches are laying down for the team that changes the context of this decision. It is not about coming down on this decision. For the Panthers, it is about the grind, taking all chances to improve despite the way the game ended. This attitude is what makes Starr’s Mill stand out as a program. Not only is this why they were able to compete so ferociously, but how they continue to reinvent themselves year after year.
What to look for next week
We are seeing sneak peeks of what this team can do. Looking at the roster, the promise of valor is there. An all-star defense plus an offensive line tough as bricks accompanied by an ever-expanding offense and a stout special teams core equals a recipe for more success later down the line.
Success in this team has been proven to come from how they learn after every loss. This week people should be looking at how the team has fixed their flaws against Mt. Zion, a team they defeated handily last season.This game should prove to be an indicator of how this team intends to improve.
Week two’s game will take place this Friday at Panther Stadium against Mt. Zion. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Gameday Takeaways, Week 2
Three subjects of note from commanding shutout
Last week, the Panthers wanted to take their foundation established against East Coweta and get back to work and improve. Their work paid off in a shutout over the Mt. Zion Bulldogs 35-0. Here are three takeaways from a dominant Panther victory.
First-year running back opening up another dimension for Panther offense
With several new talents on the offense, senior Devin Barnett made his name known. In his second start with Starr’s Mill, he took the ball in five carries for 134 yards and three rushing touchdowns. He has proven that he is a fast back with unrivaled topspeed.
“[Barnett] is a national level decathlete. There’s not too many people out there like that,” offensive coordinator Burt Waller said. “He’s an explosive playmaker and people are gonna have to deal with him, which’ll take pressure off Brandon [Mathis] and [Colin] Bartek and [Will] Yarbrough to have to carry a certain amount of the load. [Defenses] will pay attention to him.”
More than what he is able to do on his own, Barnett adds another option for the Panther offense. We’ve already seen what junior Brandon Mathis can do, and we’re just starting to see what Yarbrough brings to the table under center.
Holding on to the ball was a big issue for the Panthers in week one, and they fixed that this week by not losing a single fumble. If they continue to grind out any other quirks they may have, the offense has the potential to be a thing of beauty.
Defense pulls through in a classic bend but don’t break game
The Starr’s Mill defense pulled out another great performance with their first shutout of the season. They limited the Bulldog offense to 196 total yards and senior safety and Duke commit Cole Bishop hauled in a safety at the end of the second half.
However, it was not complete domination. Mt. Zion controlled over half an hour of game time. A lot of that has to do with their senior quarterback Taariik Brent scrambling over the Panther defense. Brent had 22 carries for 127 yards. In their lengthy drives, Mt. Zion was pulling off long, incremental drives that kept them on the field with one fourth down conversion after another.
Then again, a shutout is a shutout. No amount of time the Bulldogs spent on the field could get them into the end zone. Though the Panther defense could not get consistent three and outs most of the game, they bent, and bent, and bent. Yet, they never broke. That is indicative of the power in resilience this defense possesses.
Script is flipped in unorthodox game for the Panthers
Starr’s Mill has always gone with a tried and true gameplan: shut down the opponent on defense, and milk the game clock with a strong rushing attack. This week, it seemed to be the exact opposite. In fact, through the first three quarters, the Panthers did not have a single drive over two minutes.
“Every play we draw up is designed to score a touchdown, it just doesn’t always happen like that,” Waller said. “Every once in a while you’ll get a team that overpursues or presses the line of scrimmage so hard like [Mt. Zion] did tonight, so once we pop it there’s nobody left. You end up with big plays, and that’s what we got tonight.”
Sure, this type of game was definitely different from what Starr’s Mill is used to playing. On the other hand, how much time do they need to maintain when you have Barnett blazing down the field for three scores?
More than anything, this game showcased that this team has the pieces to dominate. We did not see everything from the offense, but what we saw from Barnett was extraordinary, and the fantastic offensive line demonstrated why they are a brick wall. Same thing for the defense. They bent, but never broke.
What to watch for next week
This is a really good place to be for Panther football. They have clearly improved from week one to week two, and made several statements in this game alone. We saw a new lane for the offense in Barnett. We also saw that the defense has it in them to make a shutout happen.
There are two more games left in the non-region schedule. Union Grove, with a 2-0 record and two blowout wins, is going to be a good gauge for where the team is at. Their next game is another tough challenge in Sandy Creek. As we saw from week one to week two, this team has the dedication and willingness to put in the hard work to improve.
This Friday, the Panthers travel to McDonough to take on the Union Grove Wolverines. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Gameday Takeaways, Week 3
Three notes from mirror match
Last week, the Panthers went on the road to play Union Grove in their third non-region game of the season. After Starr’s Mill tipped Union Grove’s final attempt on fourth down, the Panthers came home with the win 19-14. Here are three interesting things to note from that game.
Mirror match shows strength of defense
The Panthers have built success off of their run-first option offense. Union Grove, despite running a different formation, are one of the few teams that run their team identical to the Starr’s Mill. They had two speedy backs in junior Dechavion Williams Jr. and senior Jaylen Blackwell that bolstered their offense significantly.
As head coach Chad Phillips told the AJC, speed has always been the Achilles heel for Starr’s Mill. For the defense specifically, this game showed how well they are containing speed, and it came against a team who has been averaging 44.5 points to begin the season. Limiting Union Grove to 14 points is a huge indicator of the shutdown capabilities the Panthers have.
On the contrary, there were a couple rough spots. For one, Union Grove was able to get away a couple of times, once on an 80-yard touchdown by Williams Jr. Even if they were overaggressive to start, they cleaned up in the second half.
Union Grove did not score at all in the second half. They may have controlled the game clock longer than Starr’s Mill with nearly 25 minutes of possession time, but the defense got the job done. When they needed to get one stop, they pulled through.
Yarbrough resolve is beyond impressive
Sophomore quarterback Will Yarbrough has had to carry the responsibility of playing under center, and he has shown that he is up to the task. He took a beating, getting knocked around, and even bleeding from the nose. Even though he was getting thrown around, he stayed in the game and helped get the win.
Obviously, every position on the roster is important, and each needs to do his job. The quarterback, however, requires a hefty amount of leadership for one position. Communicating with the entire offense and having to make several crucial decisions every snap, it is not an easy position to master. If the quarterback is not in the right frame of mind, the whole offense can falter.
Not only does Yarbrough have the qualities of a great quarterback, but his attitude in this game proved one thing about him — he has true resolve. Anybody could be in his position and choose to let the fact that was being pummeled show in a poor attitude, but he kept on going.
“We’re talking about a sophomore. A kid that probably should be our JV quarterback,” Phillips said. “He’s out here playing a 5A playoff team and a 7A playoff team in that first game against EC. He’s beat up, he’s bloody, he’s battered. He is a warrior, and he never quit.”
In the game, he still found his way to rushing the ball nine times for 33 yards, ranking fourth on the team. Through this stage in which Yarbrough has been battle tested, he has shown promise on the field. Yarbrough is proving that he not only has the raw talent, but also the determination to lead the offense and do what he can to help the team succeed.
Speed may finally be on Panthers’ side
Speed has traditionally been the Achilles for the Panther. Not that this takes away from how talented or skillful the defense is, but it is something that has been exposed, most notably in last season’s semifinal game against Warner Robins. However, this is a new year, with a refined defense.
The Panthers have seniors Nate Kearns and Jonathon Higle at cornerback and junior Marc Stampley and senior Duke commit Cole Bishop playing safety. These four may be one of the best secondaries in the entire state. Not only are they strong, talented, and well versed in what they are doing, but they all have speed.
“Football is a game of speed, and generally the fastest team has a major advantage,” Phillips said. “Probably for the first time since 2010, when we played for a state championship, we got speed on the back end that can match up most teams that we play.”
Playing with threats like Blackwell and Williams Jr. on the other side of the ball is proof that it is there. There were only one or two big plays where they got past the defense and had to fight for the majority of the game. Big plays do count, but I have confidence this is something they will patch up.
On several plays, especially on the final drive, the Panther defense was keeping up with Union Grove’s dangerous weapons. If there is any major complaint regarding this defense, it is that stopping the Wolverines on fourth down was not always a surefire guarantee. It is impressive that they beat a potential playoff team on the road despite not even playing their best.
What to watch out for next week
This week is a new week, but a somewhat crucial one. This is the last week of non-region play for the Panthers, and it will be against a tough Sandy Creek Patriots team. Though they lost several seniors, Sandy Creek is no slouch. They need to pull out all the stops.
More than that, the region has proven to be challenging. Griffin, Northside Columbus, Northgate, and Harris County have already shown that they are competitive. This will be the last chance to test the waters before every game matters. It will be interesting what Starr’s Mill will look like on Friday but also how they improve going into their bye week.
The final non-region game for Starr’s Mill will take place at Panther Stadium against Sandy Creek this Friday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.