JACKSON COUNTY had never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in coach Billy Kirk’s five years with the Panthers. Xavier Harper changed that in Friday night’s 20-12 win over Johnson — and not a moment too soon.
On the heels of a long touchdown drive by Johnson, Harper took back a kickoff 88 yards in what proved to be the game-changing moment of the evening.
“We just robbed the momentum they had,” Kirk said.
Harper’s well-timed jaunt put Jackson County ahead 7-6, but the sophomore’s night wasn’t over. He later caught a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter from Kyle Daniel off a fade route as Jackson County went on to win its season opener for the fourth year in a row. The Panthers move on to play Walnut Grove this Friday on the road at 7:30 p.m.
Kirk said it was only a matter of time before the 6-1, 185-lb. Harper would make an impact on the varsity level.
“We knew watching him in middle school and watching him last year that he was going to be a special kid for us,” Kirk said.
Harper — who possesses 4.5 speed — saw varsity action last year despite being only a freshman. Kirk said that year of experience plus Harper’s natural ability makes him a weapon for the Panthers.
“He gives us a big threat,” Kirk said. “Xavier is just a sophomore but he plays like a junior or senior.”
And Friday’s huge kickoff return is just an example of Harper’s value.
“He showed us a fourth or fifth gear that you don’t see in practice all the time,” Kirk said.
Of course, a lot more than Harper’s return and touchdown grab went right for Jackson County Friday night.
Daniel, who won the starting quarterback job during the preseason, managed Friday’s game well, completing 5-of-8 passes for 67 yards. In addition to his touchdown strike to Harper, he threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Banks (who battled Daniel during the preseason for the starting quarterback spot).
“He did exactly what he needed to do for us to win a football game,” Kirk said.
In the backfield, Jackson County’s tailback tandem of Dustin Scott and Daivon Ledford played effectively, combining for 112 yards on 21 attempts for an average of 5.76 a carry. Defensively, the Panthers — who are playing six sophomores — allowed 335 yards but stepped up when needed, allowing just two scores.
“They were bend but don’t break,” Kirk said.
Another pleasant surprise: Punting. That area was a big question mark entering the season, but River Bryant averaged 44 yards a punt Friday night.
But the value of Harper’s return can’t be underestimated.
The Panthers had five kickoffs returned against them last year for touchdowns — including an 81-yarder last year by Johnson. Jackson County, however, got to return the favor this past Friday.
Kirk said Harper’s return was due in no small part to excellent blocking from Jackson County’s special teams — now under the direction of coach David Darling — which created a perfect wedge for Harper.
“It opened up like the dang Red Sea,” Kirk said.
After that point, it was all Harper.
“He just turned the jets on and he was gone,” Kirk said.