Every coach wants to win now, but Johnny Nichols at St. Andrew’s knows he’s got his Saints marching to the future. Nichols has a total roster of just 28 players, only five of them are seniors. This week the Saints play their first game in front of the home fans on Old Agency Road in Ridgeland against the Richton Rebels. This will be the first meeting ever between the two schools. For Coach Nichols it’s an exciting time as every week is an opportunity to watch his young team gain experience and grow-up in every aspect of the game.
“Man we are really young,” said St. Andrew’s Head Coach Johnny Nichols. “But we have some extremely talented young men who are very aggressive, very well-conditioned and play well above their somewhat small stature.”
Nichols watched his team take Loyd Star to overtime on the road in the season-opener. The Saints took a field goal lead in the first extra frame and nearly pulled off the upset until a great diving catch on fourth down and nine in the end zone gave Loyd Star a 26-23 victory.
“Our kids played so hard in that game. We missed some great opportunities with open guys, but again being so young, I know they are learning a lot, especially when we get into the close games. They are gonna learn how to win those down the line,” said Nichols.
Saints running back Jamon Harkless is one of the five seniors leading the charge of the offense. In that opening game against Loyd Star, Harkless had 32 carries for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Fellow senior running back P.J. Bryson carried the ball seven times for 38 yards while also leading the team with 13 tackles while playing on the defense at outside linebacker.
Under center is sophomore quarterback Friend Walker. Nichols describes Walker as a smart, field general, despite being just a sophomore. Walker threw for 132 yards and a touchdown in the first game, averaging 26 yards per completion.
The offensive line is where Coach Nichols says he has the highest hopes for the next few years. The center is sophomore Charlie Whittington. The left guard is a fellow sophomore Larry Johnson, while the right guard, Connor Young is just a freshman. They are joined by a pair of juniors at the tackle positions in Charles Sanders and Andrew Carron. The Saints are certainly not blessed with size as there are only four players on the roster that weigh more than 200 pounds. Coach Nichols says they make up for the lack of size with agility.
“We are in really good shape. We go at an extremely fast pace with a goal to snap the ball every eight or nine seconds to keep the defense off balance,” said Nichols. “We snap it quick, use motion and shift a lot. We spread our offense out, often times going with an empty backfield, which keeps them from blitzing us.”
Defensively St. Andrew’s is led by its two-way athlete in Bryson at the outside linebacker position. Bryson is small to the eye at just 5’10” and 160 pounds but As Nichols says he’s an unbelievably athletic young man that loves to hit and is always going 100 mph. New to football this year are a pair of basketball players off the Saints state championship team in Devin Caddle and Jameson McMillan. Caddle and McMillan are defensive backs with great potential and both are just juniors. Nichols admits that because the defense lacks size and speed they have to do a lot of blitzing and take more chances to try and get in the backfield before a play gets started. It’s a risk to give up the big play against veteran quarterbacks, but one they have to take to apply effective pressure.
St. Andrew’s is also grooming a budding freshman in Connor Young, playing middle linebacker in addition to starting on that offensive line.
Coach Nichols is now in his fifth season at the helm at St. Andrew’s. He has played and coached in championship games in his career down in Florida. He is a former high school teammate of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. Nichols experience in those games gives him great perspective that he passes along to his players about just what it takes to rise to a championship level.
“I stress to them all the time that champions have three basic qualities: discipline, work ethic and drive. A little luck along the way helps but those three are essentials,” said Nichols. “We just have to push each other as players and coaches and to trust in what we are all doing together. If we do that, I promise you the best is yet to come here at St. Andrews. No doubt about it.”
Nichols believes in the process, both in the classroom and on the field, for his young team. As they grow, there is no doubt that these Saints will be marching towards success in the standings.
Keys to Victory for the Saints:
On offense: Keep the defense off balance. The Saints have done a great job thus far by playing fast and spreading things out. Jamon Harkless doesn’t need much room to find a hole, but keeping the defense guessing run or pass is the key. Richton will try to put pressure on the young quarterback Friend Walker, so getting the ball out quickly and not forcing the ball in tight windows will be key for Friend to succeed. The offensive line has to continue to keep the pace of snapping the ball almost as soon as it’s set for play.
On defense: Keep the pressure on. The Saints have done a great job using the blitz to disrupt the rhythm of opposing offenses. The defense is especially young and gaining experience with every snap.
The Series: This is the first ever meeting between the two schools.
Last week: St. Andrew’s played St. Patrick.
Prep at a Glance:
Class/Division: Class: 3A District 6 (MHSAA)
Head Coach: Johnny Nichols (5th season)
Assistant Coaches: DeWayne Cupples, Bethany Gaillet, Dan Roach, Jared Shore
2020 record: 2-7 overall, 1-4 district