Wilson ready to guide rebuilding Knights
Down a “score” before the season even begins, first-year Northern High football coach R.J. Wilson swears the loss of some 20 of the Knights’ top players to graduation won’t cause him to pull out his hair.
It might cultivate a gray hair or two, but Wilson can live with that.
“The ladies love that salt-and-pepper look,” Wilson said, laughing.
Wilson, who replaces two-time Northern veteran Gary Merrill, who retired this spring, is in full building mode. The program, once among the best in the state, has been battling since an 0-11 disaster in 2009.
Since then, there have been three straight playoff berths and three straight 4-2 third-place finishes in the PAC-6. Even in a rebuilding year, the Knights could finish as high as second in the league and make it four straight playoff entries. But it won’t be easy.
Those 4-2 conference marks were no accident. The Knights have dominated weaker PAC-6 foes Jordan, Riverside, East Chapel Hill and Roxboro Person before running into losses to league heavyweights Southern and Hillside each year.
Southern’s gone from the 4-A ranks, delegated to the Big Eight 3-A Conference this fall under state reclassification.
That’s the good news for Northern. The bad news is that Southern remains on the schedule, albeit as a non-conference foe, and it now features what might have been Northern’s top returning player in sophomore slot receiver Jordan Brown who transferred.
There’s another trend at work, as well. A look at the schedule, arguably one of the toughest non-conference slates in the state, could see the Knights enter conference play against Person on Oct. 11 with a record of 1-5 or 0-6.
The season opens with games against Southeast Guilford, Hillsborough Orange, Raleigh Wakefield, Raleigh Millbrook, Southern and Greensboro Dudley. All but Millbrook — not long ago a state power — had deep runs in the state playoffs a year ago.
“It’s going to be a difficult challenge,” Wilson said. “But it can’t do anything but make us better.”
The Knights have some material to build around, particularly on defense where senior tackle Kendrick Bailey (6-2, 260) and junior end Raquan Riley (6-2, 250) lead the way.
They should get plenty of help from experienced returnees such as linebacker Atavion Oliver (5-10, 185), safety Jacob Bierman (5-11, 170) and cornerbacks Micah Sessoms (5-9, 150) and Marcus Starr (5-8, 160).
“The key is a strong defense,” said Wilson, formerly the defensive coordinator under Merrill. “The guys I mentioned were key contributors on (defense) last year and played significantly, and they understand defenses.”
The Knights winning formula lately has been tough, physical defense, a strong running game and a lack of turnovers. That won’t change, Wilson said.
“Offensively, we’ll be running a lot of the same things,” Wilson said. “We’ll use the ‘Pistol’ and run the ball a lot. We hate turnovers around here, and we always want to run the ball well.”
The offense took a beating in the offseason as quarterback Brandon Brown departed, along with star power back Kylyn Flemming, not to mention Jordan Brown (Brandon’s younger brother) and all but one starting offensive lineman.
Quarterback is up for grabs between junior Zaaqhai Mann and sophomore Griffin Baker. Mann is a run-oriented athlete and Baker, a star baseball pitcher, has a big arm.
“They bring two different things to the team,” Wilson said. “Z can take off and run. Griffin can really read defenses and throws well.”
At running back, junior Alphonso Gbojueh (5-7, 150) showed outstanding speed and breakaway ability the past two years while spelling Flemming and fellow big back Justin Shaw. There’s no big back around this time, but Starr should get some carries when given a break from his defensive assignments.
“Gbojueh’s a little guy who can go, and Starr can really change gears,” Wilson said.
The strengths of the offense could be receiver Wendell Newkirk (5-11, 160) and tight end Jalen Nixon (6-1, 220). Both are back and both are talented.
“Newkirk’s a rising star,” Wilson said. “Nixon, too. Nixon’s big, with soft hands and can run. We’ll use him in a lot of places — split out, in the backfield.”
The issue could well be the offensive line.
“It’s all brand new,” Wilson said.
Guard Brandon Strickland (5-11, 230) returns, but his linemates without exception played on a 1-9 junior varsity before getting late varsity call-ups to audition for this season.
They include tackles Trayon Smith (6-2, 250) and Marcus Woods (5-11, 325), guard Josh Shipman (5-10, 240) and center Lee Rodio (5-9, 170).
“They can move; they’re athletic,” Wilson said. “We will get better there. We’re looking for improvement there every day in practice.”
The bad news for a team that lost so many players to graduation is that the junior varsity only won one game last year. But that might be good news in an odd way.
Wilson said the varsity played a lot of players who would have made the jayvee team stronger, knowing that the varsity experience would pay dividends this season.
“We played a lot of sophomores last year,” Wilson said. “We knew we’d need them this year. The jayvees suffered because of that.”