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Tone-setters

The drill was simple: one blocker, one runner taking a handoff and one defender trying to make the tackle inside a 5-yard tunnel.

As it was broken down, about 15 skill players were supposed to cycle through as either the runner or tackler and yet, somehow, South Medford junior Jaylin Parnell always seemed to be in the mix.

Around every third snap, the 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker/running back inserted himself in one of the spots. Over and over he kept at it under the hot August sun, with no lapse in effort.

When the whistle blew, the sweat rolled down Parnell’s cheek but it was overwhelmed by his beaming smile as the Panthers kneeled together and listened to head coach Bill Singler.

In that 10-minute span, you could learn everything you needed to know about Parnell.

“Jaylin is just a football player and he loves being out with the guys playing,” says Singler. “He’s grown up with a ball in his hand and he just loves being in that environment. He’s always got a smile on his face and he’s one of the guys as a coach you kind of gravitate to because he makes you feel good.”

As for his undeniable work ethic, Singler can only shake his head and smile.

“He just doesn’t want to miss anything and he wants to get better and the only way to do that is to get reps,” says the coach. “He’s just learned that I’m not going to stand around and watch, I want to go do it. And, to me, that’s leadership. I’d rather have a guy that’s showing us how to do it than a guy talking to us about how to do it. He’s just a pleasure to coach and a pleasure to be around and a reason why we’re having some success.”

Parnell was a first-team all-Southwest Conference linebacker last season and has ratcheted up his responsibilities this year as one of the league’s top running threats for the No. 6-ranked Panthers heading into Friday’s 31st Black and Blue Game against North Medford at Spiegelberg Stadium.

“I just like to be on the field, really,” says Parnell, who turned 17 on Wednesday. “It doesn’t really matter to me where that is as long as I’m on the field.”

And when he’s there, Parnell is going full tilt to help give his team any advantage he can.

“I think a lot of that comes from our former defensive coordinator, Brandon Boice,” Parnell says of his constant drive. “He preached for us to not take a rep off and get the most out of every play and make the offense or defense pay, and that’s what I’m doing.”

The up-and-comer has drawn plenty of attention from crosstown rival North Medford, where senior Praise Viliamu was also a first-team all-SWC linebacker in 2015.

“He’s crazy, he’s filthy,” says Viliamu of Parnell. “We’re a very physical team and we can take him down, but he’s a very physical guy, too, so it’s going to be a good battle. He seems like a cool kid. I feel like we’re similar in how we just run hard and are always at the ball.”

Parnell was a leading tackler for South Medford last season and is a vital cog again this year for a defense that ranks third in the SWC at 304.8 yards allowed per game with four takeaways under the direction of his father, defensive coordinator Chris Parnell.

Where Jaylin Parnell has taken his game up a notch is at running back. He saw late-season action there last year and now helps an offense that is averaging 459 yards and nearly 47 points per game. Through four games, Parnell is third in the SWC with 401 yards and seven touchdowns on 51 carries to go with 13 catches for 146 yards and two scores. He leads the SWC in scoring with nine TDs for 54 points.

“You hear everybody talk about running the ball downhill, well he’s a perfect example of a downhill runner,” says Singler. “He wants to run it in between the A and B gaps, he doesn’t want to go much outside. He wants to go right down the throat of the defense and make yardage there. He complements our offense very well.”

Parnell exhibits the same type of power and versatility of some of the program’s top running backs like Logan Boyd and Patrick Thibeault, and always seems to find a way to move the pile forward for an extra yard or two.

Defensively, Parnell flies all over the field in hopes of not allowing even one inch more than necessary.

“Some guys have a nose for the football and it doesn’t matter who’s in their way. Whether it’s a blocker or lineman or whoever it is, they’re going to find a way to get to the football,” says Singler. ”He has that instinct. He doesn’t want to be denied. He wants to make every tackle or at least be somewhere near it around the ball. From that standpoint he’s just a very active defensive football player.”

For his part, Parnell says he simply sees his role as someone who is consistent and a leader on both sides of the ball.

“I pretty much just give it my all on every single play to make sure my team knows they can count on me,” he says. “We want to live up to the hype and be that team everybody is talking about that can win lots of games, so anything I can do to help make that happen, I’m willing to do for my team.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

North Medford senior Praise Viliamu, left, and South Medford junior Jaylin Parnell fill similar roles on offense and defense for their respective teams, who meet in the 31st Black and Blue Game Friday. DENISE BARATTA/MAIL TRIBUNE