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MHSAA 3A Football Championship Preview: Line play could determine outcome between battle-tested Jeff Davis County and high-flying Amory

Amory might have a slight matchup advantage up front, but coach Brooks Dampeer said nobody is going to mistake the Panthers for a bigger team.
High school football

SBLive is previewing all six MHSAA Football State Championship games ahead of Friday's and Saturday's games at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.


We know what to expect when most of these teams square off in Hattiesburg this week at the MHSAA Football State Championships, but that is not exactly the case with the 3A Championship between Jeff Davis County and Amory.

So let’s start with what we do know:

Jeff Davis County (9-4) comes in as battled-tested as you can be in Class 3A.

The Jaguars started the season 0-4, playing one of the toughest non-region schedules of any school in 3A. All four of their non-region opponents — 5A Picayune, 6A D’Iberville, 4A Mendenhall and 4A Columbia — made the playoffs, and two of them (Picayune and Columbia) are also playing for state titles this weekend.

They might have lost a couple games, but all that stiff competition early has made Jeff Davis County a better football team. The Jaguars have won their last nine games and they’ve looked solid every step of the way.

Do-it-all tailback/defensive back Malcolm Hartzog is the heart and soul of the team. He rushed for 1,231 yards and 28 touchdowns in the regular season, caught three touchdown passes, returned five punts and six kickoffs for scores and accounted for four turnovers on defense.

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“He’s just been a tremendous example of what a leader on a football team represents,” Jefferson Davis County coach Lance Mancuso said. “Even though he’s the superstar, he’s the guy that everybody likes and is willing to play for every snap. They all want to play up to his expectations. He’s a tremendous young man.

On the other side, Amory (10-3) comes in riding an eight-game winning streak on the strength of three-time All-District tailback Charleston French and a senior-laden offensive line that plays bigger than its size on paper.

French is great, but What makes Amory so difficult to defend is quarterback Jatarian Ware’s ability to distribute the football or keep it himself when the going gets tough inside. He’s thrown for eight touchdowns this year, and is a true ground threat himself with 17 scoring runs.

“Charleston gets a lot of the attention because he’s our most highlighted player statistically,” first-year Amory coach Brooks Dampeer said. “But we’re still playing a quarterback (Ware) who hasn’t completed his first season as the starter. That said, I think we’re growing every day. Thankfully, our offensive line that gelled and played well together. We put the expectations on their back and on the flip side, we’ve been able to throw it when we had to and made some big plays.”

The North State Championship last week against North Panola, Dampeer said, was a perfect example.

The Panthers were at a disadvantage up front, but Ware found running room en route to a touchdown run that gave Amory a 22-16 lead it never gave back.

The key Friday is likely which team can get a push up front offensively. If Amory can hand it to French and Cameron Haynes and move the sticks consistently, it’ll be a long day for the Jaguars. Likewise, if the Panther defense can’t clog up the running lanes and Hartzog is free to get into the second level of the defense, it’ll take three or more Panthers to bring him down.

“I think it’s going to come down to how well our offensive line plays,” Mancuso said. “That’s been the thing for us all year. Our defense, obviously has to play well, but we’re small up front and if our offensive line gets dominated — and we’ve had trouble against teams with big linemen all year — that’s going to be the key.”

Dampeer said his defensive line might have an advantage there, but said nobody is going mistake the Panthers for a bigger football team, either.

“We’re undersized as well,” he said. “We hope we can take advantage of some of the matchups, but our last opponent North Panola was huge up front. You just have to make up for the lack of size by playing at the highest level you can possibly play, and we have to try to slow down (Hartzog). We know we can't completely stop him, but if we're going to try to limit the damage, and if their second or third guy can beat us, so be it. We’ll tip our hats.”