MERIDIAN — Wesley Miller wasn’t running hard.
The Heritage Academy senior was able to take his time as he advanced up the middle of the gridiron on a first-quarter kickoff against Lamar School in Friday’s season opener at Grey Cobb Field in Meridian.
Then a hole opened up to the left of center, giving the fleet-footed defensive back space to run.
“Everybody had beautiful blocks,” Miller said.
He shot through the gap at full speed, juked a defender and found the left sideline. He followed it to the end zone for a 93-yard touchdown return, his teammates on the field — and on the bench — running with him.
A slow start for Miller — and for the Patriots — had quickly evaporated.
The Mississippi State commit’s electric play resulted in the first of six touchdowns Heritage Academy (1-0) scored in a 42-16 rout of Lamar (0-1), helping the Pats rebound from an early misstep to get the 2021 season started on the right foot.
“To come out and execute like that, everybody going nonstop on defense and offense, it’s good,” Miller said.
Junior quarterback Mack Howard tossed touchdown passes to Mitchell Woodard and Trey Naugher in addition to running for a score, while junior Luke Fisher rushed for a pair of touchdowns.
Howard, a four-star prospect in the Class of 2023, handed Lamar the ball with an interception three snaps into Friday’s contest. But he played clean football the rest of the way, rolling out of the pocket often to evade pressure from the Raiders’ dangerous defensive front.
“He made a mistake, came out and more than fixed it,” Heritage Academy coach Sean Harrison said.
The same can be said for the Patriots as a whole after a disappointing 31-14 loss on the same field last season. Heritage Academy hit the road to face Lamar after a bye week and just “went flat,” Harrison said; early in Friday’s game, signs of a similar outcome flashed when the Raiders’ Austin Acton grabbed Howard’s errant pass.
But Heritage Academy did what its coaches had been preaching ever since Lamar’s name appeared under Week 1 of the 2021 schedule: It held its own. After the Raiders marched to the 7-yard line, the Patriots held them to a field goal.
“We’ve been on them about responding in big moments, when bad things happen — and sure enough, a bad thing happened the third play of the game,” Harrison said.
The deficit was short lived. Miller housed the ensuing kickoff, and Heritage Academy had the lead for good. It was the first of several big plays for the senior, who came up big in the secondary Friday as well.
“That’s why he’s a Division I player,” Harrison said. “That’s who he’s going to be: the best player on the field most every night. He comes out and shows it.”
Harrison said he still has designs on using Miller as a weapon in the Patriots’ offense, but the way Heritage Academy scored Friday, the Bulldogs pledge wasn’t needed.
Even without junior running back Braden Davidson, who broke his hand in last week’s jamboree, the Pats ran and passed their way to success against the Raiders. Woodard hauled in a 12-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter to add to the lead before Lamar quarterback Zagar Cooper ran for a 10-yard score in the second.
Otherwise, though, the Patriots’ undersized defensive line stifled the Raiders’ run game for most of the night. It was an outcome not even Harrison expected.
“I thought coming into this one that we know the corners, the safeties, the outside ’backers, the inside ’backers are athletes, but we know we’re small up front,” he said. “I was curious. That surprised probably most everybody.”
And it turned Friday night’s game into a blowout. Howard ran for a 3-yard score and delivered a dime to Naugher before the half drew to a close, and Fisher got loose in the third quarter for two more touchdowns. Backup quarterback Thompson Reginbal even got into the game, and naturally, he completed his first career pass to pick up fourth-and-11 and move into the red zone.
Still, Heritage Academy knows there are improvements to be made. The Raiders were able to pick up several third-and-longs through the air, and they sent Howard running for his life due to substandard blocking on multiple occasions.
“I think obviously the film’s going to show a lot of fixes,” Harrison said.
But the Patriots got the win they wanted — and in convincing fashion. They’ll take on Jackson Prep (0-1) at home next week in a game where no such slow start will be permitted.
“We’ve still got things to work on, but this was a good effort,” Miller said.
Heritage Academy 42, Lamar School 16
HA 13 15 14 0 — 42
LS 3 7 6 0 — 16
LS — Zagar Cooper 28 FG, clock 6:18
HA — Wesley Miller 93 kick return (Todd Sharp kick), clock 6:00
HA — Mitchell Woodard 12 pass from Mack Howard (kick failed), clock 1:46
LS — Cooper 10 run (kick failed), clock 9:21
HA — Howard 3 run (Woodard run), clock 4:57
HA — Trey Naugher 18 pass from Howard, clock 0:48
LS — Davis McBrayer 17 pass from Cooper (kick failed), clock 7:23
HA — Luke Fisher 52 run (Sharp kick), clock 6:17
HA — Fisher 23 run (Sharp kick); clock 3:28
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.