2020 High School Football Preview: Nelson primed to lead Panthers to promised land

August 21, 2020 chris
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SOUTHSIDE SENIORS. Pictured above, kneeling, from left: Shaun Davis, Connor Rowland, Jason Garrett, Hayden Fry, Hunter Sitz, Aulden Battles, Michael Rich, Dakota Stevenson, Will Warrick, Jacob Gaskey. Standing, from left: Coadale Walls, Eli Martin, Noah Miles, Austin Rainey, Maddox Parsons, Hayden Robertson, Haden Aldredge, Joran Wells, Garrett Orr, Lukas Johnson. (Not pictured: Carnel Davis, C.J. Butler)

By Chris McCarthy,Publisher/Editor

Whatever else happens this coming season, Southside won’t detour down a wrong way street.
“We’re working to establish a culture, to set a standard not just for this year but for the years ahead,” said first-year coach Gary Nelson. “My goal is for Southside to become the best place to play football and go to school. Some places have the best schools. Some places are the best at football. I want to be the best at both.”
Nelson admitted he was wrong in first thinking that he had to build the program up from scratch.
“From the outside looking in, I thought that this was going to be a total rebuild,” “When I got here, it was obvious that we had a lot of players that were used to working hard and doing things the right way. What I appreciate about this group is that they’re really hungry to be held to that standard. We’re going to focus on being one rep better every single day.”
Nelson was head coach at Montgomery Academy for the last four seasons, where he compiled a 30-16 record and guided the Class 3A Eagles to four straight playoff appearances.
“If you start with our offense, we’ll probably step out onto the field with 10 or 11 guys who have started games at some point last year,” said Nelson.
Southside looks solid at the skill positions, as the top passer, receiver and rusher return. Back for his third year behind center is Michael Rich, who last year passed for 1,090 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Michaelis an incredibly ta-lented player who can make all the throws,” said Nelson. “He’s really somebody who has emerged as a leader since I’ve been here. He is someone who is going to do things the right way and really provides an energy level for our team. Michael has really been a focal point in making sure that our kids are practicing fast and playing the way that we want them to.”
Rich’s two top receivers return in senior Aulden Battles, an All-Etowah County pick who caught 43 passes for 598 yards and seven touchdowns, and sophomore Cody Roberts, who had 15 receptions for 212 yards.
“We’re trying to get Aulden and Cody into some formations that are advantageous on the same side of the field,” said Nelson.
As a junior last season, Carnell Davis ran for a team-high 758 yards and five TDs along with eight catches.
“Carnel is a warrior at ru-nning back,” said Nelson.
Rich and his backfield mates should have decent blocking with a veteran offensive line that includes seniors Garrett Orr (an All-Messenger selection in 2019), Dakota Stephenson, Will Warrick and tight end Hayden Robertson.
“Garret’s a tremendous leader, somebody that everyone in our program looks to as an example,” said Nelson. “We’re looking at five kids up front who have started games at some point or another. I think we can play seven or eight offensive linemen who have starting experience.”
Defensively, Southside must replace its top three tacklers from last year. Seniors Hayden Fry and senior Eli Martin, junior Spencer Sharp and sophomore Maddox Parsons are back at linebacker.
“The linebacker position we really feel like is a strength,” said Nelson. “There is a lot of experience there. I think we have 10 or 11 defensive linemen who could play right now,” said Nelson. “It’s going to be a question of how we can create a rotation that keeps them fresh. I think we’ve got a lot of kids who can play in the secondary. Overall, we have more players who are capable of playing than I realized when I first got here. That’s a good problem to have.”
Southside is back in Class 6A, where they resided from 2014 to 2017. The Panthers’ Region 7 competition includes Pell City, Arab, Oxford, Springville, Fort Payne and Scottsboro.
“There are a lot of really good football teams,” said Nelson. “We have a schedule this year where there are no weeks off. It’s definitely a challenge, but I think that as a competitor you want to play people who push you to be the best version of yourself. If you’re going to have a chance to have a successful season, you have to be prepared to be the best possible version of yourself every single week. We feel like if we do that, the wins and losses piece will take care of itself.”
Katie Bohannon contributed to this article.