Oak Grove opponents better get the Panthers as they rebuild - though even that window may be pretty small.
The Panthers, 5-6 last year after averaging an 11-2 mark in the previous four seasons (2012-2015), look to be loading up again with a strong sophomore class and veteran juniors and seniors.
Richard knows a thing or two about rebuilds and reloading. While at Orrick, Richard led the Bearcats to four Missouri Class 1 state title games, including consecutive state titles, from 2006-2009. Then the Panthers won the Class 3 football title in 2014.
“While we just have six seniors, they’re all contributors and great leaders,” touted Oak Grove head coach Pat Richard. “We have a great class of sophomores, and the young kids have done a good job of following them. It’s been the most fun we’ve had in a summer in a long time.”
Leading the way will be senior running back and linebacker Kenton Wilhoit, who missed five games last year. As a junior, Wilhoit still rushed for 828 yards and eight touchdowns. Wilhoit hit the offseason hard and now sports a 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame in the backfield.
Alongside Wilhoit will be senior running back Tyler Hunter (5-foot-11, 195), who stepped up in Wilhoit’s absence and finished with 759 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Hunter and the rest of the Panthers also enjoyed a strong offseason, which should lead to a tougher Oak Grove team ahead.
“They both had great offseasons,” Richard hyped. “Both are unselfish and want to run. They both gained 20 pounds, but got faster – which is hard to do.”
Senior fullback Jake Jackson (5-foot-11, 220) will open holes for the duo – and get the ball as well.
“Jake’s looked great at camp. We kept running him more because he kept breaking loose and scoring,” Richard said. “He’s very selfish and a great blocker, and the go-hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of kid.”
At quarterback, senior Jaxon Althaus (6-foot-1) returns after throwing for 583 yards and rushing for 300 yards and four scores as a junior.
“Jaxon will have a better year, as he’s more comfortable in the offense now,” Richard stated. “we’re doing more things with him now because he’s so athletic. You don’t know he’s there for 20 plays, and then he daggers you with a long run and a score. He’s tall and moves right by you.”
On the outside, TJ Jackson lines up at receiver after playing basketball in prior seasons.
“He’s a nice shot in the arm and a good addition at receiver,” Richard said.
Trey Bryant, a 6-foot-3 junior, and Cameron Keith, a 6-foot sophomore, will see action at tight end.
“Trey looks like a protypical tight end, but has been hurt the past two years. Now we’re getting a chance to see him out there,” Richard said. “Cameron really devoted himself to getting better and has really made a push. We feel great about both of them and can run a double tight and feel good.”
On the offensive line, senior Luke Edwards (5-foot-1, 200) returns as the lone starter at guard.
Junior Michael Hoffman (5-foot-10) starts at center, while junior Gage Albright (6-foot-1, 210) moved from tight end to guard. Sophomore Devin Alewin (5-foot-11, 245), junior Haden Walton and sophomore Kalen Kemp also will see time up front.
Wilhoit will anchor the defense at inside linebacker, shifting over the years from free safety as a freshman on the 2014 state title team. Clay Griffin (6-foot-2, 190) started as a freshman and notched 12.8 tackles – 64 overall – despite missing six games due to injury.
“The kid’s everywhere and has the best instincts of any linebacker I’ve ever had,” touted Richard.
In the secondary, Hunter and sophomore Jimmy Malone will man safeties, as well as sophomore Brenden Marsh. Cornerback will include TJ Jackson, junior Rylee Mills and sophomore Eric McKinney.
In the trenches, Edwards returns at defense end, along with Jake Jackson. Hoffman and Alewine join junior Moses Sanderson and sophomore Lance Parvin on the line as well.