Photos by Jared Thomas
By Robert Wilson
Sam Williams’ first season as Brandon High’s head football coach got off to a rocky start with losses to Oxford and Madison Central.
Williams’ second season started out much different.
Brandon gained 317 first-half yards, raced out to a 13-point halftime lead, and cruised to a 45-14 victory over Oxford and senior quarterback Mack Howard, a Utah commitment and one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the country, Friday night in a MHSAA Class 6A non-region game at Brandon.
After losing its first two games last season, Brandon won 11 straight games before losing to Madison Central 24-17 in the 6A state championship game.
This year’s season opener featured Brandon, with 13 returning starters, against Oxford, which had 13 returning starters, and in addition Howard, the No. 1 quarterback in Mississippi and the No. 27 quarterback in the country in the Class of 2023 by 247 Sports Composite rankings. Howard transferred from MAIS Class 5A state champion Heritage Academy to play against MHSAA Class 6A competition. He completed 73 percent of his passes for 3,475 yards and 47 touchdowns with only three interceptions and led Heritage to its second MAIS Class 5A state title in three seasons as a junior.
But Brandon’s defense, led by senior lineman Deanudre Washington, limited Oxford and Howard’s output Friday. The Bulldogs took advantage of six Oxford turnovers and Howard only completed one TD pass before leaving the game with an apparent shoulder injury late in the third quarter. Oxford coach Chris Cutcliffe said after the game Howard would be fine and the injury wasn’t long term.
Meanwhile, Brandon junior quarterback Landon Varnes had an outstanding game, completing 18 of 27 passes for 284 yards for three TDs. Varnes completed a 36-yard TD pass to Devin Thigpen for Brandon’s first score in the first quarter and a 25-yard TD pass to senior wide receiver and Akron commitment Lester Miller in the third quarter for a 36-14 lead and a 15-yard TD to Miller in the fourth quarter for a 45-14 lead. Miller caught nine passes for 203 yards. Varnes also had a 7-yard TD run in the second quarter. He passed for 2,547 yards and 19 TDs last year a sophomore.
Brandon senior running back Nate Blount, a member of the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 Team, gained 164 yards on 21 carries. Blount had 1,442 yards and 17 TDs before missing the last three games with a collarbone injury last season as a junior. Senior running back and Louisiana Tech commitment Jarvis Durr added two TDs on runs of 6 and 36 yards. Durr had 1,120 yards and 16 TDs last season as a junior.
It was a happy opener for Williams, last year’s Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Coach of the Year after he led the Bulldogs to a 11-3 record and the 6A state runner-up finish in his first season as Brandon. He took Brandon to the state championship game for only the second time in school history.
“I thought we played a pretty good game from top to bottom,” said Williams has a 49-17 record entering his sixth season as a head coach, three years at Pelahatchie and one each at Ridgeland and Brandon. “I was proud of a win of that magnitude over a team like Oxford, probably one of the best coaching staff in the state with a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. I’m really proud of my kids. The way they competed and the way they kind of made up for the mistakes we made throughout the game. We get to move forward, and we are now 1-0 coming into a big week against (defending 6A state champion) Madison Central.”
The only downside for Brandon was senior offensive center and Southern Miss commitment Luke Rogers – a member of the Priority One Bank/Mississippi Scoreboard Metro Jackson Preseason Elite 11 Team – left the game in the first half with an apparent ankle injury.
Senior running back Roman Gregory scored both of Oxford’s touchdowns. He caught a 35-yard TD pass from Howard to cut the Brandon lead to 9-7 in the second quarter and ran for a 25-yard TD to cut the Brandon lead to 22-14 in the third quarter.
Brandon scored the third most points ever given up by a Cutcliffe coached Oxford team. Only Starkville (56 in 2018) and Madison Central (48 in 2021) scored more.
“Brandon deserves a lot of credit,” said Cutcliffe, who has a 58-21 record and one state championship (2019) and one state runner up finish (2020) in his seventh season at Oxford. “They have a very talented team with an excellent coaching staff. We made too many mistakes tonight to beat a quality opponent like Brandon.” Brandon wore decals with the initials PL on the back of their helmet in memory of teammate Phillip Laster Jr., who passed away Aug. 1 during a conditioning drill at Brandon. Laster was 17 years old