2018 Gridiron: Palmyra Panthers
Colors: Orange and black
Total Returning Lettermen: 27
2017 Overall Record: 9-3
Head Coach: Kevin Miles
Years at School: 7
Record at School: 59-26
Overall Record: 102-57
BOOM BOOM POWELL: DAUNTING DEFENSE, PULZERIZING GROUND GAME SERVE AS INFINITY STONES IN PANTHERS DOMINATION QUEST
SPOILER ALERT: The exact order of our 2018 KHQA Preseason Power Rankings won’t be revealed here until late August, but you can be Palmyra, Clark County and Monroe City will populate three of the top four spots on that list of esteem. Put simply: the Clarence Cannon Conference “Power Elite” is no joke. And given the caliber of returning talent at all three of these schools, it would not surprise me if the CCC gave rise to two State Finalists; perhaps even twin Champs in Class 1 and 2.
HARD WAY TO FALL: One could viably argue that Palmyra was the best small school team in the state of Missouri not to win a District Title last Fall. The Panthers ran into a phospherous hot Clark County squad in the District Title Game and fell victim to London Brunk’s quarterback coming-out party in a 26-16 punctuation game to a 9-3 season overall. Considering Palmyra’s rough opening night start at Macon, the overall story arc here suggests Kevin Miles turned in one of his best coaching performances yet, even in the absence of a deep playoff run. The Panthers fixed some gnawing early season issues on the fly, won seven straight games, and gave eventually Class 1 Titlist Monroe City their sternest test of the year along the way. The spun-forward narrative of all of this is that Palmyra now gets to bring back one of the most proven and bankable roster trees in Tri-State Football, replete with 17 holdover starters. Sure, the Panthers bid goodbye to KHQA Player of the Year Peyton Plunkett, Breakout Star Gabe Goodwin, and All State Kicker Noah Mencer (and those are not easy shoes to fill) but you still won’t find many more enviable preseason situations this Autumn than the one that sets up now in The Flower City.
SMYS LIKE US: Granted this is the first year in seemingly forever that Palmyra doesn’t return at least one (oft times multiple) All Stater, but it’s hard not to envy Defensive Coordinator Marty Smyser his job this Fall. The Panther reload will essentially boil down to replacing just three starters from a unit that gave up just 10 points per game and limited foes to a microscopic 198 yards of total offense per game. Moreover, Smyser gets to fill those three vacancies with talent culled from a loaded pool of willing candidates. Fair warning: you will likely hear some overly-optimistic “but Palmyra doesn’t have true Rainmaker returning” on Defense narratives spun from outside The Flower City to make future Panther opponents feel a bit more optimistic about the prospect of playing this D this year. Don’t buy in on it. Palmyra defensives have historically given rise year to year to new cornerstones every single season in the Miles Regime. Two, Palmyra has viable candidates to fill that role in all three levels of the defense in Brady Barnett or Tucker Aeschliman at Linebacker, Jacob Kroeger in the Secondary, and the sneaky outlier candidacy of Parker LaFoe on the Defensive Line. More info to come on all four below.
CUE THE SEAN BEAN MEME: “One does not just simply replace a Linebacker the caliber of Peyton Plunkett.”
No argument here. That kid was incredibly special. Heck, we built his Player of the Year parade float ourselves for goodness sake. But there is no scenario on the board where Linebacker is anything but a relative strength for Palmyra in 2018. Brady Barnett gets to springboard into that leading man role here after earning Second Team All-Conference and All-District plaudits as a Junior. The 5’10” 215 pounder is a fiery, relentless run stuffer who holds his ground with ferocity. He feels destined to lead this team in tackles and tends to a great job of keeping everything in front of him. Not sure Barnett is going to compile the kind of obscene Tackle for Loss numbers that his predecessors have (Coach Smyser has a greater variance of blitz options this year) but when Brady gets sent, he hits the line of scrimmage like a torpedo and tends to find his mark. His ability to make huge hits tends to lend an infectious fire to overall Defensive morale as an added bonus.
Tucker Aeschliman presents an entirely different profile at Inside Linebacker. He seems a little undersized for the job at 5’10” and 180 pounds but the Senior more than makes up for it with his incredible range and his surprising leg strength. Tucker runs to the ball with incredible explosion; a guy closes to contact with unreal suddenness. That’s his outlier. Conventional wisdom would suggest you could run at him, given his sleight-ish build, but if you watch his tape, he never seems to give ground. And you all see that leg churn when he runs the football on the other side of the ball. Really tenacious kid.
KROEGER’S LIST: From a pure athletic standpoint, you won’t find many better prospects in NEMO than Jacob Kroeger; as gifted a football hunting Safety as you will find in the Tri-States. I made this argument last August and I will restate it now: Kroeger was the best Defensive Player on the field for Palmyra in that season opening loss to Macon and made an interception and a pass defense in the first half that most college kids could not have emulated. Certainly, he’s got great bounce and terrific dexterity but those gifts with his level of pride and competitiveness fighting for the 50/50 ball and you’ve got a kid with All State level potential on Defense. Moreover, he will be well supported in back. Corder Lehenbauer resumes his work alongside Kroeger at Safety after a breakout Sophomore campaign. Wrestling star Ross Arch seems poised to contend for Cornerback slot. Kaden Malone, Tristan Gottman, Gradey Crowe and Cooper Hinkle are newcomers here who could quickly augment the positional pool.
POCKET CRUSHERS: The best Panther Defenses in recent history have been fronted by obscenely mobile and active Nose Tackles and rangy DE/OLB hybrids on the edge of the five man scheme. Expect more of the same in 2018. Jackson Powell mans the middle here, a returning All State Center on Offense who knows how to fight to the football. Michael Frankenbach has played significant snaps up front over the last two years and is a dependable plug and play performer. Parker LaFoe has shown high end potential off the edge as a splashy big play guy who at 6’2” and 190 pounds that can hunt Quarterbacks. Jarom Alexander certainly figures to get Defensive snaps somewhere and fits the prototypical DE metrics Palmyra employs. Junior Jordin Henry could bring some valued heft to the front at 285lbs. Sophomore Weston King and Junior Evan Dorsey seem to have strong futures ahead. Seniors Seth Walls, Nick Lickfeld, and JC Bross all have the capability of playing their way into the rotation as well. There’s just not a soft spot to be found on this side of the ball on paper.
A STAR IS BORN: Jarom Alexander’s breakout performance in Week Seven against Centralia (220 rushing yards, 2 TD) completely changed the calculus of the Panther Offense last Fall, but especially into the 2018 campaign. This was a kid who had been buried on the depth chart transforming himself into a Franchise Back literally overnight. And the 6’2” 190 pound slasher never relented, garnering 1003 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 106 total carries. His return creates flexibility in the Panther Backfield. He can be a Defensive tenderizer in one-back spread sets. He also has the capability, with Peyton Plunkett gone, of stepping into both the Tailback and Fullback positions if Kevin Miles ever decides to dust off the I-Formation again. He gives Palmyra a ton of looks. He gets downhill in a hurry as a runner. And he’s all jagged angles to try and tackle. I suspect he commands at least 50-70 more carries as a Senior and if he gets anywhere near the ten yards per carry average he amassed in 2017, that oodles of added value to the P-Town Offense.
POWER: Take nothing away for Alexander or the looming prospect of battering ram Brady Barnett moving to fulltime Fullback work, but to my mind the most intriguing part of this Palmyra Offense is the simmering potential of the veteran Offensive Line that returns. Jackson Powell may be the Centerpiece (literally) as a returning Third Team All Stater but the smart money here says he’s not the only postseason award winner on the squad come November. There’s All Conference level potential up and down the line with the returns of Kole Dieterich (6’4” 255lbs and Braden Erwin (6’2” 245lbs) as well as Michael Frankeback and breakout Frosh Sensation Jackson Lundberg. This is a group that returns intact and with chemistry already fully established on the heels of a season that netted the P-Town Offense 33 points, 295 rushing yards and 355 total yards a game last season. Metrically, that makes Palmyra’s Offensive Line the best in the business right now.
ORANGE IS THE NEW ATTACK: While Palmyra profiles as a physical juggernaut relative to this time last year, there is still ample quick strike, field stretching ability at play within this offense. Jacob Kroeger is coming off a season that saw him produce 975 yards of total offense between his arm and his feet. His dual threat talents must be accounted for on every snap. The Panthers have the added luxury of having Corder Lehenbauer in reserve as a more traditional Drop Back passer with a big time arm. Given Kroeger’s success at Wide Receiver early in his career, there were instances last year where the Panthers inserted Corder into the line-up and pushed Jacob to the edge to try and create matchup issues.
Tucker Aeschliman is a nifty Jet Sweep run threat who gets to edge in a nanosecond. He’s a pulse quickening talent who can change the tempo of the offense. Kaden Malone and Tristen Gottman, as well as Gradey Crowe could see more looks in the Offense at Wideout as Kevin Miles is prone to employing a lot of different weapons during the course of a season. His Tight End situation, while absent All-Stater Gabe Goodwin, is more solid than you think with Parker LaFoe, Seth Walls, and Nick Lickfield waiting in the wings.
Newcomers Dakota Compton, Cooper Hinkle, and Dylan Redd are Deep Sleepers here, but players with their own charms who could broaden the play-calling palate with good Camps.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: It’s hard to beat a team you can’t score on. And Palmyra profiles as one of the most complete and solidly built units in the State of Missouri. The schedule is also nicely backloaded for the Panthers, in that they figure to be operating at Max Q Defensively just in time for that Clark County/Macon/Monroe City gauntlet to end the regular season. My gut feeling tells me P-Town is going to be an absolute bear to deal with October and obviously, this group of kids has ample motivation to turn the tables on all three of those teams considering the very recent past. I really like the construction here. Sure, there are some niggling matters I would like to see Palmyra address before handing these guys a ticket to the Big Stage; particularly in seeing a more consistent week-to-week level of play from this Offensive Backfield as a whole. But I also chalk that up to playing a lot of younger guys last Fall who are now leaders and vets on this team. Player for Player, I am not sure Palmyra has as much elite star power as Clark County; their most likely hurdle to greatness, but I would say on balance Palmyra is deeper than the Indians and more solid in critical areas like Offensive Line play and Special Teams. So it’s all kind of a push at this point on paper until we see it all happen in real application. So I will finish this synopsis as a I started it: Palmyra is indisputably an elite power in 2018 High School Football. How elite is for the Panthers themselves to decide. But there is not a single opponent on their schedule (or in the state) that the Panthers should feel they can’t beat heads up. Physical, confident, and smart go a long ways in this world and this Palmyra crew has all three in abundance as a team.