PORTAL — When the Portal Panthers hit the football field this fall, they’ll have more experience and seniority than in recent seasons.
They’ll also have a new head coach calling the shots.
Jon Willoughby was announced as the new Portal coach during a press conference at the school Wednesday afternoon. Willoughby will take over for the departed David NeSmith, who compiled a 10-19-1 record during his three years in charge.
Willoughby has spent all 19 years of his coaching career as an assistant — most recently at Southeast Bulloch — and is excited to finally get the opportunity to be a head coach.
“This has been a long time coming,” Willoughby said. “I’m very happy to be here and grateful for the opportunity. I’ve always said that I wanted one shot (at a head coaching position) and that I would take it one time. I hope to be here for a long time.”
While Willoughby’s expansive resume doesn’t include any previous stops at Portal, he has a bit of familiarity with the Panthers. Last season, Portal battled SEB to a tie and showed Willoughby the kind of talent he will be overseeing.
“SEB turned out to be a pretty good team last year,” Willoughby said. “Portal played them tough and even all the way, so I think that gives me an idea of what we have to work with now.”
With no formal spring practices at Portal, the first task at hand will be assembling a group of assistants. Many of Portal’s coaches last season were lay coaches — not employed by the school system — and Willoughby currently stands as the only member of the football coaching staff.
As assistants are brought into the fold and summer weight room sessions give way to passing drills, a clearer image of the 2014 Panthers will develop. But for now, there is a basic blueprint for where things are headed.
“We’ll base out of the wishbone and be similar to what was run last year,” Willoughby said. “You need to have something to believe in and we believe in our ability to line up in the bone and move the ball. That said, if we find out we have guys who can run, throw and catch, we’ll back it up and do a little of that.”
One of the biggest challenges Willoughby will face is the numbers game.
Southeast Bulloch had over 70 players on its roster to work with last season.
At Portal — one of the smallest GHSA schools in the state to field a football team — it’s been routine to have less than half of that roster size.
“You can’t coach the same when you have 30 kids as opposed to 80,” Willoughby said. “That’s part of the challenge, but this isn’t my first rodeo at a small school.”
Willoughby will get the chance to pick up his first win Aug. 29 as the Panthers host Josey in their season opener.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.