BURTONSVILLE – In 2018, Paint Branch High School running back Sam Doku rushed for 1,084 yards and 12 touchdowns. Doku, along with fellow running back Justin Page, served as a two-pronged, formidable attack out of the backfield, as the duo shredded defenses and helped lead the Panthers to the regional championship game for the second year in a row.
Now, nine months removed from a searing, one-point loss against the Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical (“Mervo”) High School in that regional final, Doku returned to Paint Branch for his senior year as the only returning offensive starter from last season.
Page, the powerful runner who averaged 8.06 yards per carry, graduated. Quarterback Norman Douglas, who threw for 23 passing touchdowns? He’s at the University of Charleston along with wide receiver Ishmael Agbodzah, who capped off his senior year with 646 yards and eight touchdowns. And wide receiver Max Davis, the player who opened the game against Mervo with an 83-yard score on a punt return? Gone as well.
That turnover rate was the greatest of Head Coach Mike Nesmith’s coaching career at Paint Branch. Nesmith has a young, relatively inexperienced team and plans to lean heavily on three-year varsity starter Doku, particularly at the beginning of the season.
“We think Sam is one of the top players in the area, and because of our youth, especially early in the year, he’s going to have to play offense and defense and be on special teams,” said Nesmith. “He’s worked really hard to get himself in shape to be prepared to do that, but he’s really going to have to carry a larger role as his young teammates mature around him.”
That increase in leadership and workload is something that Doku takes in stride. With Page graduated, the senior expressed faith in the performance of his new, younger teammates.
“We have a lot of skill(ed) players that can make plays and score touchdowns for us,” said Doku. “(Page) was a great back, very powerful, but I’ve got another young guy who’s going to come in and do the job too.”
That “young guy” is former junior varsity player Khalil Radway, a sophomore known for his elusiveness. Radway joins quarterback Octavian Smith as another student-athlete making the leap from junior varsity to varsity.
Even though he will be sharing the backfield again, while sharing substantial playing time on both sides of the ball, Doku has big plans for his senior year.
“I expect to have a great season. I want to go for 1,000 yards again and score a lot of touchdowns,” said Doku.
While Nesmith is waiting until the beginning of the season to officially announce a starting quarterback, the two players vying for the spot both bring something different to the table. Nesmith called Smith an all-around athlete and a “natural leader,” while junior Travon Chaney improved so much during the 2018 season, Paint Branch promoted him to backup quarterback. Both players will have the opportunity to plead their case as a starter before the start of the season.
“Chaney has the type of arm that can make the type of throws that you want your quarterback to be able to make,” said Nesmith. “We have two viable options. I can see a scenario where both of those kids are playing quarterback a little bit each game. We’re fortunate because no matter who it is, they’re going to be young and inexperienced but they’re going to have some ability.”
Part of Paint Branch’s 2018 success can be attributed to a menacing defense that orchestrated three straight shutouts to open the season where the Panthers outscored their opponents 129-0.
Former middle linebacker Kennypride Toh is now at Frostburg State University, but starters Tobi Adedoyin and Wisdom Agbeyome are both returning to the team. They combined for 161 tackles last year; that performance led to Division I scholarship offers for the six-foot-one, 220-pound Adedoyin. The senior has not yet decided where he is going to continue his football career, but Delaware State and Butler have expressed interest; Adedoyin also earned a preferred walk-on to the University of Toledo.
Like Doku, Adedoyin gave his stamp of approval to the first-year defensive starters and the new players joining varsity.
“We’ve returned our linebackers, so we’re going to be striking a lot,” said Adedoyin. “We’ve got young defensive backs from JV, and we’ve got some reserves that played last year and got meaningful minutes last year. The starting role won’t be new to them.”
Another major change that the Panthers will have to contend with this year is the shortened regular-season schedule. Instead of playing 10 regular-season games, teams in Montgomery County will play nine while the remaining game moved to the playoffs. Now, more squads will have the opportunity to play in the postseason, and the first week of the playoffs will likely feature a top seed against a school with a .500 or losing record.
Adedoyin said that the new playoff schedule might help increase Paint Branch’s chances of going to the state finals.
“The playoff format – I’m not trying to (make a big deal out of it) – but it’s a little easier for us,” he said. “And our team, even though we lost a lot of offensive starters, we’re working hard and we’ve still got linemen. We still returned our star running back, and we’ve returned a lot of weapons. We know the goal and we expect to meet the goal.”
The goal, of course, is to win a state championship. It’s a title that has eluded the Panthers for 44 years; a title that was within reach in 2017 and 2018, but fell out of Paint Branch’s grasp in the regional finals two years in a row.
Nesmith knows that with his team of young, inexperienced players, there will be an inevitable learning curve. However, he has a plan.
“It’s a cliché, but we’re going to take it one day at a time. That’s really how you have to do it with such a young team,” said Nesmith. “And because we’re so young, we can’t overlook anyone. We open up with Einstein, and that’s where our focus will be coming out of the summer. Even though we have Northwest Week Two and people have that circled, we’re not good enough to overlook a team like that and get beat. We’ll be taking it one week at a time.”