Raiders gear up for spring football

Posted on March 11, 2019 by Jay Phillips

A recent adjustment will have Navarre playing in the 7A classification next season, and graduation will cause them to play without some of the star players that helped the Raiders to the top seed in the region and an 11-2 record last season.

Despite moving up from 6A, and losing 27 seniors to graduation, Navarre is returning enough key players and coaches to keep spring expectations as high as ever.

Unfortunately, players like Dante Wright, who is on his way to Colorado State after his second straight season as the PNJ’s player of the year, will no longer grace the sidelines and both sides of the ball for Navarre.

The big play capabilities of Joshua Carter will no longer be an option for the Raiders at linebacker and running back as Carter signed with South Alabama.

Navarre lost one of Florida’s best defensive lines as Jordan Jefferson signed with West Virginia, Alex Gilchrist signed with Culver-Stockton, and Mitchell Hunt signed with Harding.

Others, such as Quinn Caballero and Chris Williams, haven’t decided where they will play next season, but have added their names to the list of graduating seniors that head coach Jay Walls and his staff will miss.

“There’s always something you have to work on,” Walls said. “Because of graduation, every year there’s somebody you have to replace. It’s time for someone to step up.”

However, Navarre is gearing up for a big season, and for a good reason.

Navarre’s offense will be led by Florida 6A’s fourth leading passer from last season in Marlon Courtney III and one of his favorite targets from last season, Tyler England.

Not only did Courtney and England contribute to last year’s team in a big way — such as when the two connected on a last second, tip ball in the back of the end zone, in the pouring down rain to beat Pine Forest — but both Courtney and England played with the leaders of Navarre’s current graduating class and will be looking to carry many of those traits with them into next season.

“[They taught us] hard work, for sure,” England said. “Leadership was also a big thing. They always had something positive to say. In the weight room, in the classroom, and on the field. I will try and follow in their footsteps the best that I can. I know that we have some big shoes to fill.”

Courtney finished last season with 2428 passing yards and 19 passing touchdowns in addition to 410 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

England accounted for 674 receiving yards and six touchdowns while sharing the load with receivers like Wright and Caballero.

This year, England will start the season as Courtney’s go-to option, and the two should be playing behind an offensive line that allows for plenty of time to pass.

“The chemistry me and Marlon built this year was critical,” England said. “I’ve known him since he moved down here when we were kids. It’s good getting back into things with him.”

The connection between Courtney and England is just a snapshot of the locker room as a whole.

“You have to have guys step up and be leaders in the locker room and in the community,” Walls said, “and we have that.”

That connection could be one that the Raiders build off heading into next season, but England and Courtney aren’t the only Raiders who have built chemistry with one another. Much of the team has.

“I grew up playing with all these guys my whole life,” England said after last year’s Pine Forest game. “And coming up they’re still with me and with this team. And that’s the thing, it’s family first. It’s family first; that’s the biggest thing.”

Fan-optimism isn’t only coming from the returning players, it’s also coming from the coaching staff’s resume.

Walls owns two 12 win seasons at Navarre, and last season Navarre won 11 games.

Even with the large graduating class, England and Courtney won’t be the only familiar-faces.

Navarre will return running back Jaydin Antonio, tight end Fernando Gomez and three starters to their offensive line, after breaking in a new offensive line last season,

Walls hopes that he’ll be able to rely on the offensive line as a strength early on.

Walls did admit that they will have to rebuild a good portion of the defense. Navarre returns Xayvion Thomas to lead their linebacker core, but the losses along the front seven and secondary won’t be easy to replace.

Navarre will add players like Jebari Mitchell and Ky Dennis from last year’s junior varsity team and transfer Jahseim Locke will join them on next year’s team. Locke, a rising junior, already holds offers from South Florida, FAU and others.

“This is a good place to be if you’re new, because you’ll blend in just like I did,” Courtney said after last year’s win over Niceville.

Navarre’s new classification will have the Raiders playing a different schedule, which includes two trips to Tallahassee next season and no game against Pensacola Catholic.

“It’ll be a lot more travel, and certainly very competitive,” Walls said, “but I think you still have to take it one week at a time.”

Navarre will lose some of their chances to play local teams, such as Pensacola Catholic, that are outside of their classification but will pick up extra district games.

“The one saving grace, if there is one, is that we do have more district opponents,” Walls said, “so if you do get beat you have more chances to win the district or be one of the top teams.”

With spring approaching, Navarre will begin working toward what the Raiders hope is a memorable first year in Florida 7A football.