2022 HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Youth has its day in Collinsville

Collinsville quarterback Mason McAteer throws a pass at a recent Panther football practice. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

COLLINSVILLE – Not too long ago, Tanner Nelson played quarterback for Collinsville football coach Ernie Willingham. Now he’s helping his head coach in new ways.

Not only is Nelson the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, he’s Willingham’s right-hand man. In some respects, he’s a co-head coach. Willingham said Nelson “probably does 80-percent of the football stuff that goes on at the school.”

“If he (Nelson) wasn’t helping me, I couldn’t do it,” Willingham said. “As you know, four years ago I had some health problems. I barely made it those last couple of years before I retired. I feel as good now as I’ve felt in 20 years, but I still can’t physically do everything. He does a great job. He knows what I want. Me and him talk a dozen times a day. Even if I wasn’t talking to him, he knows what to do. He takes care of it. The kids respect him. They know he’s going to make them do everything they need to be doing.

But Nelson doesn’t view himself as a co-head coach. He’s just wants what’s best for the Panthers as a team.

“Whatever he (Willingham) asks me to do I do,” Nelson said. “I’m trying to make it easier on him. He came back my junior year and I played for him two years, so I kind of know what he wants and kind of know what he wants everybody to be doing. That’s all I’m trying to do, trying to get these guys ready to play every Friday night.”

The players have welcomed Nelson’s presence as a young up-and-coming coach. He graduated from Collinsville in 2015.

Senior all-purpose back Keaton DeBoard said he relates to Nelson, since both have played quarterback before.

“I think it’s really cool to have him on the sidelines because when he was playing I was a manager,” DeBoard said. “I think it’s come around full circle. Me and him kind of grew up around each other, so we have pretty good chemistry together. I just think it’s really cool to have him coaching us.”

“I love Coach Nelson being there,” senior lineman Jordan Coker said. “As a kid, I watched him playing high school football. I couldn’t wait to put the pads on too. I think he does a great job of bringing young energy to the team.”

“It’s really easy to play for a coach that you know and like being around,” added senior running back/linebacker Fernando Padilla.

Nelson, along with defensive coordinator Chris Conde, also oversee the Panthers’ progress in the weight room, much to Willingham’s delight.

“Our strength and conditioning program is at a whole different level,” Willingham said. “When I retired and came back (in 2021), a lot of things were the same, but the weightlifting program and the conditioning program is one thing that is much better. They do a great job with that.”

“I think the weight room has really helped us,” Nelson said. “We’re just focusing every single day on whatever we’re doing, whether it’s in the classroom or outside, it doesn’t matter. I think the small details can maybe help us this year. Instead of going 3-7 or 6-4, we can kind of take the next step. We’re kind of happy where we’re at right now, but we’ve still got to work hard each and every day to really get there.”

DeBoard is the Panthers’ top returning offensive threat, but Collinsville will be maximizing his talent in different areas other than at quarterback. Those duties behind center will fall on eighth grader Mason McAteer.

“Being able to move me around a little bit helps attack teams many different ways,” DeBoard said. “We have Mason coming in to play quarterback and he’s exceptional. He’s got a good bit to learn, but he played a good bit against Plainview. He played a lot last season where it mattered, so being able to move me around really helps to attack teams.”

As DeBoard said of McAteer, he isn’t the only young guy who got playing time for the Panthers last season. Collinsville graduated just four seniors off last year’s team.

“We expect that to really pay off (this season),” Willingham said. “Our young guys, because of their inexperience last year, they’re a year older. They’re a year more experienced. Along with that experience, the age, you get better as you get older. The more experience you get, you get a little better too, but they’re also bigger and stronger. We’ve got some younger guys who are really going to come up and help in that area.”

Joining McAteer and DeBoard in the Panther backfield are senior Trevor Terrell and sophomore Jacob Steele. Padilla and eighth grader Kyler Beene line up at the flanker position. Sophomore Jameson Coker, eighth graders Gavin Lang and Jeremiah Killian, and junior Eli Griggs are the other Panther receivers.

Along the offensive line are senior Aiden Daniel, junior Trey Smith and freshman Sam Stewart at the tackle spots. Coker and sophomores Fredy Rivera, Rajuess Rooks and Justin Pruitt line up at the guard positions. Sophomore Shawn Stewart is at center.

On defense, Smith and Daniel double as ends and Rivera, Rooks and Jordan Coker at tackle. Griggs, Beene and Padilla are outside linebackers. Junior Andres Garcia, sophomore Shawn Stewart, Terrell and Killian are at middle linebacker.

DeBoard and McAteer occupy the safety spots. Senior Austin Morgan, Lang, Jameson Coker and Steele are the Panther corners.

On special teams, Terrell and Jordan Coker are long snappers. Eighth grader Sylas Adams and McAteer are holders. DeBoard and McAteer will handle the punting duties. DeBoard will also kick, along with Padilla. DeBoard, Lang, Beene and Padilla will return kicks.

Basketball coach Jon Tidmore joins the Panther staff as receivers coach and will help Nelson with the offensive game plan. Mike McElrath coaches the Panther running backs. Teddy Helms heads the Panther special teams and coaches the offensive line.

The Panthers move down from Class 3A to 2A, Region 7 this season. The region also includes Fyffe, Ider, North Sand Mountain, Pisgah, Sand Rock, Section and Whitesburg Christian.

“We’re moving from 3A down to 2A and everybody thinks that’s going to be a lot easier, but not necessarily,” Willingham said. “We’re in a tough 2A region. I’ve seen a lot of those guys play in the spring. That’s not a drop off. All of these teams have strong, well-established programs. They’re going to be a challenge to us week to week.”

The Panthers open the season on Aug. 27 at home against Class 5A Crossville.

Collinsville football coaches Ernie Willingham, left, and Teddy Helms, right, watch as two Collinsville players run a drill at a recent practice. Photo by Shannon Fagan.
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