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Choctaw season preview: 'We're being thrown into the fire early'

Seth Stringer
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH – The significance of routing your archrival is not lost on Greg Thomas.

Choctaw has beaten archrival Fort Walton Beach seven straight times. [DEVON RAVINE/DAILY NEWS]

He's made a living out of it, the four-time state champion coach defeating Fort Walton Beach an unprecedented seven straight times. Yet, as great as last year’s 42-6 win at Joe Etheredge Stadium was for Thomas and the Indian faithful, it didn’t come with a playoff spot for Choctaw.

This year, that playoff spot is guaranteed due to the COVID-19 pandemic altering the state series regional structure. There’s no longer a district champ, just short road trips and rivalries galore.

The Indians will celebrate those rivalries right out off the gate, Niceville and Crestview coming to Joe Etheredge to open the season followed by road trips to Steve Riggs Stadium and Navarre.

Niceville is coming off a 12-1 campaign and a trip to the region finals. Crestview is just a year removed from the Final Four. Fort Walton Beach hired former Choctaw defensive coordinator Chip Petree in the offseason.

Choctaw coach Greg Thomas calls a play from the sideline last season. [DEVON RAVINE/DAILY NEWS]

“We’re being thrown into the fire early,” Thomas said. “Niceville will be one of better teams we play all year. We’ll find out quick where we’re at and what we need to work on … and then we’ll have to turn around and play Crestview and then Fort Walton. That’s a huge three-game Okaloosa County stretch to start the season.”

Last year Niceville beat Choctaw 41-0 to extend the win streak to eight in the rivalry.

“Something we haven’t done in the past against them is keep it simple and execute,” Thomas said. “I think we’ll be in for a long night if we can’t run the ball especially with (quarterback) Ezra (McKenna) being out.”

Yet, again, it’s not a must-win game.

“Everyone is making the playoffs, so we just need to get better and better every week,” Thomas said. “Of course the goal is to win every game, but the goal is really to be playing our best by the end of the season.”

On the eve of the season, here's a breakdown on Thomas’ crew.

OFFENSE

Losing Ezra McKenna to an offseason basketball injury for at least a month hurts. Yet, the foundation — five returners — is there to build on last year’s 5-5 campaign.

The offensive line returns four starters in 6-4, 305-pound left guard Jace Odom, left tackle Lazarus Shockley, right tackle Connor McLeod and Jaden Malagarie.

The backfield features the talented trio of Kybert McGlothin, Amarion Pettis and Cole Tabb, while 6-4 Javaris Young will be the go-to threat among a core that includes Canyon Patterson, Jack Bowen and Jamil Bowles.

Yet none of it works without the maturation of Dorian Smith or Blake Garland, the latter who turned an ankle in a recent scrimmage. That leaves Smith, who Thomas said “has a great arm but is very inexperienced.”

“It’s a position all about timing and feeling comfortable and that’s what a little scary about going into week into the Niceville game with only one week of live contact,” Thomas said. “But in the scrimmage the other day, he did a great job for his first time.

“Hopefully the success and experience of the offensive line can kind of dictate his success.”

DEFENSE

It’s simple really. Choctaw’s best defense is its offense, which needs to limit turnovers and put the Indians’ defense in the best position to succeed.

“Last year we beat ourselves too many times,” Thomas said. “We can’t put out defense in that type of situation and we have to control the possession.”

The good news is Choctaw has an influx of talent mixed with four returning starters.

Junior Nick Ruiz returns at middle linebacker and “will be calling the defense.” Dorian Smith returns at free safety, while the strong point of the defense will be Anwar Johnson and William Chappell returning on the line.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO

Including Navarre Week 4, the schedule is unrelenting. But Choctaw could turn some heads.

Say the Indians extend the win streak to eight over the Vikings and can beat either Crestview or Navarre, suddenly a 2-2 start looks good heading into a winnable slate of West Florida, Gulf Breeze, Pace and Milton.

If McKenna returns for that key stretch and the three-headed backfield shines behind the Indians’ experienced O-line, this could easily be a 5-3 crew heading into the playoffs with momentum.

From what he’s seen in the offseason, Thomas sees a contender.

“As a coaching staff we’ve been impressed with the way our kids have worked and grinded all summer,” he said. “This is actually a great group to work with, and they don’t ever give you excuses. They just give you all they have and their energy is infectious. They’re fun to work with." 

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

Greg Thomas never produces a bottom dweller. It’s just not in his DNA.

But slow starts have doomed the Indians before and they won’t be favored in three of the first four games. So a 1-3 start is a real possibility, and if McKenna’s rehab is delayed and the Indians’ offense struggles with Smith under center and a green backfield, this could be a long season for Thomas and Co.

The good news is the playoffs are an automatic. So if the Indians falter to a 3-5 regular season, there’ll be time to right the ship.

SCHEDULE

Sept. 21 vs. Niceville

Sept. 25 vs. Crestview

Oct. 2 at FWB

Oct. 9 at Navarre

Oct. 16 vs. West Florida

Oct. 23 at Gulf Breeze

Oct. 30 vs. Pace

Nov. 6 at Milton

*All games at 7 p.m. aside from 7:30 p.m. tilts versus Navarre, Milton and Gulf Breeze