Nease enters the 2019 football season on a quest for respect. The Panthers will host Paxon in their kickoff classic on Friday at 7 p.m.

Collin Drafts has a knack for injecting tempo, yards and points into offenses.

Nease’s first-year football coach will look to do the same for a program that scored more than 14 points only four times last season.

Drafts inherits a team that will gauge success after Week 1 and after Week 11. Whether Nease will beat Ponte Vedra and return to the playoffs remains to be seen.

What senior cornerback Eric Marshall desires is respect: from opponents, classmates and others. That comes through winning football games.

The Panthers have produced one winning season in the last decade. That was in 2015 when they ran the table in their district.

But, Nease has expanded — there were 2,669 students enrolled on Monday’s first day of class. The football program has moved up two classifications to Class 8A this fall. That means the Panthers are no longer in a district that includes Englewood, Middleburg and Ed White. Their district opponents are Bartram Trail, Oakleaf, Sandalwood and reigning Class 8A champion Mandarin.

All four of those programs will have explosive offenses this fall. Mandarin is the reigning Class 8A state champion, and has stroll into games with Florida’s Mr. Football, Carson Beck, taking snaps. Sandalwood is quarterbacked by Florida State commitment Jeff Sims and will have its receiver corps led by Bowling Green commit Javonte Kersey. Oakleaf has averaged 37.2 points in its last 10 games against St. Johns County opponents and led by three-star quarterback Walter Simmons III. Then there is a Bartram Trail program that has won 10 straight over the Panthers.

“It’s a really good way for me to prove I can compete,” Marshall said. “I’m going to be going against some really good guys out there and it’s going to be a really good challenge for me.”

Football games are not won on paper, or previous pedigree. Marshall knows this, as does senior safety DeQuan Thompson.

“When they line up against us, they are going to have to show us they are better than us,” Thompson said. “We’re ready. No matter who it is, we’re ready to compete.”

While there are talent discrepancies in high school football, teams who are willing to compete for 48 minutes are more frequently than not rewarded for their labor.

It’s what propelled the Panthers into a 14-13 win over St. Augustine in the latter half of last season. The lack of it may have also locked the Panthers out of the postseason in 2018. Nease finished 3-7 last fall. But the program was, once again, an almost team. A 9-6 loss to Bishop Kenny and a 6-5 loss to Matanzas were two games where injuries and ineffectiveness doomed the team.

Joe Nieves (439 passing yards, 46.1 completion percentage, zero touchdowns, six interceptions; 581 rushing yards, five touchdowns) was the quarterback for both those narrow defeats. The senior was forced to deputize at times last year; but he will be the full-time quarterback this fall.

“I think it’s going to help a lot because I got that playing time at quarterback,” Nieves said. “I know what to expect. I have the experience. I think I should be fine.”

Nieves will lead an offense that has more spread concepts. Drafts’ offense will incorporate the zone read, pistol formation and try to attack defenses from the edge.

“We have a good group of young guys,” Nieves said. “We have a rising sophomore wide receiver Grant Stephens. He is going to be a big impact on our offense. We also have a rising senior running back, Joe Bradshaw. We have some playmakers on offense. Those guys will show out for us this season.”

The transition from Tim Krause’s offense to the one Drafts has installed means Nease may be in more five-man protections this fall. Though All-County lineman Angel Rodriguez has graduated, seniors Nick Thoresen and Byron Darner are returnees.

Thoresen gained 45 pounds this offseason. More importantly than the 17-year-old offensive tackle’s newfound stature is the trust Drafts has in him.

On the first day of fall workouts, the Panthers were hydrating during a break the coaching staff dubbed halftime. As the period was coming to a close, Drafts summoned for two players to have a brief meeting with the coaches: Thoresen and Thompson.

Their assignment: energize their teammates for the second half of practice.

“We’re not the same people we were,” Thompson said.

“The amount of work we’ve put in,” Nieves interjected.

“Exactly,” Thompson added.

“The amount of commitment and time (we’ve put in). For example, Nick (Thoresen) put on 45 pounds. I switched positions. Joe is strictly quarterback. Eric (Marshall) put on weight too. We’re not the same players. We upgraded. We’re 2.0. We’re ready to go out there and win. We refuse to lose our senior season. We will be the team that beats PV.”

Nease hasn’t beaten the Sharks in a decade. No one has to remind anyone in green and gold of that. Thompson and Marshall did say that playing county opponents in the first two weeks of the season will be a barometer for the program’s offseason development.

“We think about it all the time our record last year,” Thompson said. “People around our school, the respect we were given, which was basically none. They talked down on us and said we would be the same as last year.

“It’s our senior season so we’re not going out like we did last year. Now, we have a new coaching staff. Our head coach has helped us a lot. We’re not the same team we were last year. We will show that this season.”