Prep Preview 2014: Coaching legends return to Northern staff
With two state champions on its schedule, Northern coach R.J. Wilson knows his squad will be facing another tough slate of non-conference games to go along with a very competitive PAC-6 itenerary.
“We have a very positive outlook even though we’re playing two state champions from last year,” said Wilson, who will be in his second season coaching the Knights. “Not too many teams will have as tough a schedule as us.”
On the other hand, not many teams will have as tough a coaching staff as the Knights.
Former North Carolina assistant coach Ken Browning, who won a state title at Northern in 1993 before moving on to the college ranks, has returned as a volunteer assistant and is helping Wilson coach the offense. Gary Merrill, whose unexpected departure from the sidelines before last season opened the door to Wilson’s promotion, is also back.
Merrill has a longtime history of conference and playoff success during two prior stints at Northern and he’ll help coach the defense.
“They are two guys with a lot of experience and success coaching football,” Wilson said of Browning and Merrill, “and it’s been great working with them. It’s a blessing having them and the players and I are enjoying every minute of it.”
Northern’s schedule offers a challenge similar to last season when the Knights were winless against non-conference foes. Northern was 3-9 overall after going 0-6 to start the season.
Besides 3-AA state champ Southern and 4-A state champ Greensboro Dudley, Northern will face an Orange team that was one win away from playing in the state 3-AA finals. The Knights open their season against Southeast Guilford, a team that posted an 11-3 mark last season.
“We would have loved to have won more games that we did last season but I think the team stayed together and played well in the conference,” Wilson said. “I expect it to be equally as tough this year but the players have been through it before.”
Northern bounced back and posted a 3-2 PAC-6 mark that good enough to make the state playoffs for the fourth straight year. Wilson said Hillside was the PAC-6 favorite in his eyes and that he’d like Northern close the gap with the Hornets.
Getting to that point again will take a different approach, Wilson said. He is making a change in offensive philosophy by dumping the spread offense in favor of a more traditional multiple-set offense featuring two running backs and a tight end. Wilson said the change was precipitated by personnel and the lack of productivity last season.
“We tried the read-option with one back last year,” Wilson said. “But this year with the athletes we have, we want to put as many of them on the field in position to be successful.”
The Knights will open the season with a new quarterback.
Last year’s starter, Zaaqhai Mann, transferred to a school in Virginia, and he’ll be replaced opening night by sophomore Luke Fenlon. Fenlon was locked in a head-to-head battle with Griffin Baker, but gets the start in part because Baker’s battling an injury. Wilson said Fenlon is athletic and can tuck it and run, but he’ll be doing most of his work from the pocket.
Wilson is happy to have a pair of running backs in senior Alphonso Gbojhueh and junior Domineke McNeill to carry the ball.
“They’re both special players and we need to get the ball in their hands,” Wilson said. “There may be times when they’re in the backfield together.”
At fullback, Wilson said junior Phillip Bell, a defensive lineman last season, and senior Leondray Howell, a linebacker, likely will fill the role as lead blocker.
The receiving corps is led by Rayvon Bass and Johnathan Branch.
“We’re looking for more production from them this season,” Wilson said. “We didn’t have much success last year and we want them to step up.”
The tight end position will play a more prominent role in Northern’s offense and the likely starters there will be Joel Bennett, who moved over from defense, and Dillon Leovic.
The offensive line will be anchored by seniors Trayon Smith and Marcus Woods on the right side. The left side will be built with newcomers Andrew Eisenson and Devon Mills. The center position is still up for grabs between Lee Rodio and Josh Shipman and Wilson said a lot of it depends on chemistry with whoever is the quarterback.
“We’re going to be pretty good with a mix of returners and new players,” Wilson said.
Defensively, the Knights will be strong on the line, according to Wilson.
Amarray Jay on the end and Raquan Riley inside are Northern’s most experienced returning linemen. Jay has the size and quickness that will attract college recruiters, while Riley could have a big year after missing six games last season because of injury. Sophomore Carlton Fowler will give Northern some needed depth.
The linebackers will be led on the inside by Johnny Jones, Demazio Samuel and Mack Fenlon. Wilson said they worked well in rotation last season. And on the outside, Atavion Oliver and Laurence Shaw would be Northern’s playmakers.
The secondary will be led by junior safety Ike Martin but he is the only player Wilson said is considered a starter.
Northern’s kicking specialists return as Leovic will handle the punting duties again and T.J. Milby will take care of placements and kickoffs.
Wilson said he has not settled on any returners but the likely candidates are Branch, Oliver and McNeill.
“It makes you versatile if you have more than one option to return kicks and punts,” Wilson said.
Making the playoffs for a fifth straight season is a realistic goal for Northern, according to Wilson. He said winning a playoff game would be the next step. Northern’s last four seasons have ended with losses in the first round.
“It’s pretty important to make the playoffs,” Wilson said. “It’s an indicator of how your season went. Continuing to make the playoff means a lot to the guys on the team.”
PREP PREVIEWS 2014: This is one in a series of reports previewing area high school football. The series continues through Friday, opening day of the 2014 season for most high school football teams.