The next in line
Newnan's defensive spotlight firmly on LB Portress
Coaches typically turn to their seniors prior to the season as the time to assume a leadership role. Tonarius Portress, though, has been smack dab in the center of Newnan’s defensive success since he rumbled into the end zone on a 60-yard interception return in one of his first appearances as a sophomore.
Now heading into his final varsity season as the Cougars’ starting middle line- backer, the responsibilities of the 5-11, 226-pound senior hasn’t changed as much as the spotlight is now just shining brighter among a much younger lineup.
Portress has felt the weight of his responsibilities for the last two-plus seasons as a starter and tried to make himself accountable no matter what the situation.
“Being a middle linebacker and captain of the defense I always feel like that,” he said. “Even if they score and the ball is thrown way over my head I feel like it’s my fault. I’ve got to be able to take charge, even if I can’t get there.”
After sharing much of the load with a larger group of senior starters on defense including Georgia freshman safety Tray Matthews, most teammates will be looking to Portress to again get the job done when Newnan takes the field for Friday’s season opener at home against Marietta.
“You’ve just got to step up and become more of a motivator,” he said. “I can’t just be quiet and in the background letting someone else do it. You’ve got to actually be the captain.”
Over the past four seasons, the list of outstanding linebackers at Newnan has grown to include future college standouts Zander Ogletree and Adam Strakose in 2009, Trevor Tanner in 2010 and Bryant Ball in 2011.
Along the way, that leadership role has been passed down, with Ball making an impact on the team’s current star linebacker during the lat- ter season. A sophomore in 2011, Portress took the advice and ran with it right before taking the field against Luella in early October.
“BB told me that it doesn’t matter how young or how big or how tall you are. As long as you go in and work hard, you can do what you’ve got to do,” said Portress . “I went in the next play and ran back a 60-yard interception for a touchdown.”
Since then, he’s grown into both his current role and a stout package of strength and speed that any high school coach would hunger for in the middle of his defense. In the midst of receiving college scholarship offers, Air Force and Presbyterian already among them, he’s been Mr. Reliable for Newnan’s Mike McDonald.
“He tackles the ball car- rier. It’s as simple as that,” McDonald said. “He’s played a lot for us. He made a big jump in between his sophomore and junior year. He is unquestionably the most experienced one over there on defense. He’s kinda the heart and soul over there.”
If a player ever wanted to learn the proper techniques of tackling, Portress certainly would be a proper tutor. He led Newnan with 124 last year, including 82 solo hits.
The Cougars’ next closest leader was Matthews, with 80 tackles total.
Maybe just as important as keeping running backs out of the end zone, Portress finds himself with keeping teammates on the right track.
“When I was coming in as a sophomore I had a lot to listen to and a lot to learn from,” he said. “Now I’ve got ???Dogs hope to overcome inexperience on defense to teach everyone every- thing. I’m kinda like an assistant coach. Positioning, where they’re at, how hard to go, what to look for when you do go. I’ve had to not only help linebackers but the defensive line even though I don’t play that position.”
Despite an influx of youth in the lineup – especially on defense where the Cougars lost seven of their eight leading tacklers outside of Portress the senior feels that there are plenty of key returners to make this a successful season.
“Our quarterback, with Bailey [Bryant] back, he should be able to step this year and he knows the sys- tem. Our running backs, J.K. and Khayyam. They know what to expect this year,” he said. “I think we have a lot of young people this year (but) when they get a couple games of experience and we hit region, we should be set. We’ve got everything han- dled. We just got to get out there and play.”
That time is just about to arrive.