By Cuyler Meade
It’s been a tough last few years for Perry. The Pumas haven’t had a winning season since 2012, losing seven games last season.
But hope springs eternal and Spring brings eternal hope. There’s a lot of talent on this Pumas team, and they’re still led by veteran coach Preston Jones, the same man who won nine games with the team just five years ago. As Perry works through Spring football, Jones spoke with Sports360az.com about what he’s looking for on a team he expects to turn things around in the fall.
Quarterback: Everyone loves a good QB battle, and the Pumas have a great one on their hands. Brock Purdy split time at the position last season, passing for nearly 1200 yards and rushing for over 500.
“He got a lot of experience,” Jones said. “Really good athlete, great competitor. I think he’s going to have a big breakout year. People are going to learn his name right away.”
But Purdy has competition under center. D’Shayne James started in 2015 as a freshman at wide receiver but has always played quarterback coming up.
“He’s 6-2, 200 pounds, and he’s also possibly going to be playing quarterback,” Jones said.
So with two guys who can play the position well, what’s a coach to do?
“I don’t know yet,” Jones said. “We’ll let the best guy win the job. It’s one of those things where, if D’Shayne is as good as we think – you know, he’ always been a quarterback, but he wasn’t going to beat out the senior as a freshman playing quarterback, that just wasn’t going to happen.
“I think in my heart Brock Purdy is a Division-I quarterback, but I think this other kid potentially could be, too. So I don’t know if he’s going to be able to beat Brock Purdy out, but we like to run our quarterback a lot, and I think it would be foolish to not play a second quarterback here every now and then.”
The trenches: Any coach will tell you everything starts up front. Winning the battle along the line of scrimmage is crucial, and it’s a crucial area of concern for a Pumas team who graduate several front-line guys.
“Our defensive line and offensive line is the big concern,” Jones said. “We lost a lot of guy son our d-line and o-line, so we’ve got to see who steps up.”
Secondary: Here’s an area of the field where Jones is going to have some experience.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back,” Jones said. “Last year we were starting freshmen and sophomores.”
It starts with the quarterback of the defense, the middle linebacker. Jones is really excited about a player moving into the position for the first time this fall.
“Clayton Nocella,” Jones said. “Big kid. Very, very, very strong. Starting at middle linebacker next year. He’s got big shoes to fill with Case Hatch being a three-year starter that’s leaving. Clayton played side-by-side with him last year and hopefully learned a lot from him. But we expect him to be the leader of the defense next year.”
From the middle of everything to the extremities of the defense, where Jones highlighted another young player with a chance to be special.
“David Eppinger,” Jones said. “He started last year for us as a freshman at corner, and I think he was probably fourth on the team in tackles. Just an unbelievable athlete in terms of speed. He’s really fast. Running track this year, so we think he can be really good.”
Offensive weapons: Whether it’s Purdy or James taking most of the snaps, there’s one thing that’s certain: They’re going to be throwing a lot of passes the way of Nate James.
“He was nearly a thousand yard receiver last year,” Jones said. “Led the team in catches, broke school records. Really good athlete, has great speed. We have really high expectations of him.”
James averaged 88.5 yards per game last season and caught eight touchdowns. The incoming senior will likely be the top weapon of whoever ends up under center.