Rebuilding. Improving. Euphemisms used by most high school football coaches to describe the state of their programs.
“We have only one goal,” veteran Hillside coach Antonio King said. “To win the state championship. And that’s a very realistic goal.”
When asked, opposing PAC-6 4-A coaches put Hillside on a pedestal. “We’re all chasing Hillside,” first-year East Chapel Hill coach Jon Sherman said. And Sherman’s team is generally picked to finish next in line to the Hornets.
Two seasons removed from its 2010 state 4-A title, Hillside is back, hungry and talented.
A team that lost record-setting tailback Khris Francis and star safety Korrin Wiggins to UNC and Clemson, respectively, not to mention a handful of other seniors who’ve moved on to the college ranks, might have holes to fill and no one to fill them.
Seniors Trevion Thompson (6-3, 185 receiver) and Donté Thomas-Williams (6-2, 215 running back) are both considered four-star college prospects on a 0 to 5 scale and have many major national programs in hot pursuit.
Senior defensive back Kalen McCain (6-1, 175) is a three-star prospect who backed out of a commitment to Virginia Tech and is now committed to N.C. State.
Coming up on the recruiting radar are underclass BCS prospects Emanuel McGirt (6-5, 260 left tackle), Miles Kelly (5-10, 175 receiver), DaQuan Brown (6-3, 285 offensive guard), Markus Crutchfield (6-0, 230 outside linebacker), Marcus Pettiford (6-5, 255 offensive guard) and Keith Beasley (6-0, 200 linebacker).
If you’re noticing a theme, you’re not mistaken. The Hornets are loaded.
The big question for the Hornets is probably at quarterback. Junior Nas Forté-Ferguson (6-2, 210) is the latest in a long line of Hillside quarterbacks who has paid his backup dues and earned the starting slot.
The younger brother of former Hillside and N.C. Central quarterback star Michael Johnson has the tools to make the passing game go.
“He’s a strong kid with a big arm,” said King, a former Hillside and NCCU quarterback himself. “He has the intangibles to be good. Now he just has to make his mind up to be great.”
Forté-Ferguson is “a serviceable runner,” King said, “but don’t expect 90-yard TD runs from him.”
In the first play of a two-minute drill simulation near the end of practice Wednesday night, King put the pressure on Forté-Ferguson at midfield. “Down three (points), 50 seconds left,” King ordered.
Forté-Ferguson dropped back, looked down the right sideline and found a streaking Thompson at about the 20 for a 50-yard scoring pass.
And it was against the Hornets’ first-team defense, which King considers the strength of the team.
Forté-Ferguson’s backup will be 6-0, 175 freshman Chancey Caldwell. “There is no quarterback controversy,” King said. “Nas is the starter.”
Thomas-Williams hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to run the ball — his high prospect ranking has more to do with his performance at off-season summer camps — because of the 4,500 rushing yards first-teamer Francis put up the last two years.
Backed up by talented junior Requaz Brannon (6-0, 200), King has the utmost confidence in his two top running backs to keep the Hornets among the state’s leaders in rushing yardage.
Bulldozing their lanes will be that huge front line of McGirt, Pettiford, Brown, senior center Brandon Thompson (6-1, 315) and junior right tackle Rashawn Henderson (6-2, 225). All five started a year ago, four as sophomores.
“They’re a lot more mature this year,” King said of what was at times a problem area last year as the youngsters joined the varsity fray for the first time. “They got better as the year (2012) went along.”
The young line helped Francis to about 2,000 yards rushing in 2012 and King said it probably would have been more except that defenses stacked the box, daring the Hornets to throw, which they didn’t do nearly as well as usual.
Joining standout Thompson at receiver will be Kelly, DeAndre Harper (5-11, 165), Ray Green (5-10, 160) and newcomer Timothy Mangum (6-1, 175) a varsity basketball player.
The Hornets often use three receivers and a tight end in addition to the single back. The tight ends will be Malik Evans (6-2, 200), another Hillside basketball star out for football for the first time, and sophomore Donté Edwards (6-3, 235).
“The offense should be improved all the way around,” King said, noting that last season’s 5,362 yards of total offense was the program’s worst in the seven seasons he has served as head coach and/or offensive coordinator. The previous low was 5,500 yards.
While the offense should cause untold issues for opposing defenses, it’s the Hornet defense that King expects to dominate.
Three of the four line starters are back in seniors Khalon Howard (6-2, 225), K.J. Covington (6-0, 200) and Teshaun Dawson (6-2, 250), along with Crutchfield.
“That’s our strength,” King said. “We’ll be able to rotate seven guys in those four spots.”
At linebacker, Beasley is joined by Lasone Midgette (5-10, 185) and Robert Traynham (5-11, 185). Each has at least two years varsity experience.
The secondary is loaded with talent and experience, too.
Free safety McCain is the unquestioned star, but Eric Young (5-9, 165) is back at one corner, Alex Woods (6-2, 170) is a smooth senior cover man moving in opposite Young. And Jalon Bethea (5-10, 160) is the strong safety.
“We’re pretty strong there,” King said. “And all of them played last year.”
An area often overlooked at the high school level is the kicking game. Hillside has had to overcome serious punting and place-kicking issues the last couple of seasons but appears to have found an answer this year in Ian Burriss Jr., a senior who transferred from Riverside.
Burriss did not play football at Riverside and has eschewed high school sports for club soccer gigs in the past. But he has the Hillside staff buzzing about his punting and kicking.
In practice Wednesday night, Burriss hammered home a 47-yard field goal for a team that had problems clicking on extra point kicks last year. He also had nice hang time and distance on his punts and was driving return men to the goal line or deeper on his kickoffs.
“We’ve got a new weapon,” King said.