Friday is the season opener for the Jackson Academy (JA) Raiders, with the team set to travel to Greenwood to take on perennial powerhouse Pillow Academy.
The Raiders enter 2019 with high hopes, after notching back to back 9-3 campaigns under head coach Larry Weems.
Weems, now in his fourth year, is hoping to start this season off strong, but doesn’t take Pillow lightly. The last time the teams met was in 2016, and the Raiders fell 34-17.
“They’re not in our division. We won’t ever play them in the playoffs because they’re in a different classification. But we have to go on the road with a bunch of new kids in new positions, and you never know how they’re going to react,” he said.
“They haven’t played yet, so we’re anxious to see what they do.”
JA’s offense will be led by junior quarterback Jackson Conn (6’6”, 198 lbs.) He’ll be assisted by junior running back Parker Ryan (5’10”, 173 lbs.), who as a sophomore was third on the team in rushing.
“Parker is a really good running back. Hopefully, he’ll make some good plays for us,” Weems said.
The Raiders still had questions at wide receiver, with four players, William Dennis, Russell Hawkins, Tae Stewart and Chase Rush, in contention.
Last year, Stewart (5’11”, 172 lbs.) caught two passes for 40 yards and two touchdowns. On defense, he picked off four passes for 132 yards.
Up front, they’ll be protected by a line that includes senior starting tackles Joseph Adams (6’1”, 260 lbs.) and Alex Rushing (6’5”, 280 lbs.), as well as Nelson Thomas, a two-year starter at center.
The three were part of a Raiders team that had one of the most potent offenses in 2018. Last year, the Raiders scored 361 points on offense, while notching 3,131 yards on the ground and 1,510 through the air.
Opponents were hamstrung by JA’s stingy defense, scoring just 202 points, rushing for 1,680 yards and passing for less than 1,200.
With a new quarterback, running back and receiver, Weems said it will be important for the front five to step up.
“We’ve got to have really good play up front. If those guys can’t give you time or an opportunity, you’ll struggle,” he said. “If you can control the line of scrimmage, you’ll have the opportunity to take advantage of the plays you want.”
Last year, the Raiders mounted a 9-3 campaign, and falling to cross-town rival Jackson Prep in the MAIS AAAA Division 1 playoffs.
“There were four or five plays in the Prep game, had they gone our way there would have been a different team playing the next Friday night,” Weems said.
JA received the opening kickoff but fumbled it deep in their own territory to set up a 15-yard Prep touchdown on the next play. At the end of the first quarter, Prep and JA were tied up, 7-7.
In 2018, Pillow recorded a 6-7, losing to Lamar School in the second round AAAA Division 2 brackets.
JA goes up against one of the best Pillow teams in recent years. The team returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense, including senior quarterback Shane Houston Stephens. Last year, the then-junior earned AAAA Division 2 MVP honors.
Jackson Academy will face off against Pillow Academy at 7 p.m., Friday, August 23. The game is an away game.