Aug. 21, 2014 @ 03:30 PM

BY MARK DONOVAN; 919-419-6655

DURHAM — For a program that churns out top national college prospects like Dairy Queen fills soft-serve cones, back-to-back early playoff exits the past two seasons has Hillside High School angry and ready to do something about it.

The Hornets, who haven’t lost a PAC-6 4-A game since 2009 and haven’t lost to a current PAC-6 member since Jordan pulled off a 21-20 win on Sept. 22, 2006, hope to ride a dominant offensive line into state title contention this season.

The trip begins Friday, Aug. 22, at 7:30 p.m. as the Hornets, ranked No. 8 among 4-A schools in the state by, hosts No. 5 New Bern.

The voyage won’t be an easy one, particularly in the early going.

Hillside coach Antonio King has scheduled a nightmarish non-conference slate that includes reigning state champions No. 2-ranked Southern (3-AA) and No. 7-ranked Greensboro Dudley (4-A) to complete the Hornets’ three-game opening stretch.

Southern, Dudley and New Bern combined for a record of 38-6 last year and are all considered potential state title threats this season.

On the plus side, all three games are Hillside home games, though the Southern game will be played at N.C. Central’s O’Kelly Riddick Stadium Aug. 29. New Bern comes to town Friday night and Dudley will be here on Sept. 12 after a Hillside bye week.

Playing that kind of non-conference schedule can make or break a program. “If you lose all of them, it can ruin your psyche,” King said. “And you hope to avoid injuries.”

If Hillside does get through that meat grinder unscathed, the Hornets would propel themselves directly into the state title conversation.

And much of that will be because of the offensive line.

Emanuel McGirt (6-6, 270) is a senior and the unquestioned top college prospect on the team. As left tackle, he’ll protect the blind side of veteran all-conference quarterback Nas Forté-Ferguson who’s starting his second season under center.

McGirt, who committed to North Carolina early this summer, has since reopened his recruitment and reportedly now has Georgia and N.C. State at the top of his college list.

He’s one of four senior linemen who’ve started together the past two seasons. Joining him are left guard Da’Quan Brown (6-2, 310), sophomore center Jaylan Laws (5-9, 225), right guard Marcus Pettiford (6-5, 275) and right tackle Rayshawn Henderson (6-2, 260).

Tight end Donté Edwards (6-3, 235) is another big body returning who can block and catch.

“Hopefully it will finally pan out,” King said, when asked about the big four that’s shown potential since their sophomore seasons. “The line — along with Edwards — should be the strength of the team. They’re big.”

Forté-Ferguson was inconsistent last year, but has a big arm. King said he’s had a good offseason and expects big things from him this year.

“He’s progressing real well,” King said. “He was a very young quarterback last year and he’s been fine-tuning a lot of things this summer.”

In the backfield, 4-star recruit Donté Thomas-Williams has left for the University of West Virginia, but there’s talent to replace him in senior and former backup RiQuaz Brannon (6-0, 220).

“He’s got a little speed, got a little power,” King said.

The Hornets usually feature one back — Thomas-Williams’ predecessor was current UNC player Khris Francis — but get others in the mix as well.

This year’s rotation will feature freshman Jamal Currie-Elliot, junior Marcus Krah and senior Riquan McCall. Krah, one of the fastest players in the state, is an athlete who’ll also be in the mix at receiver.

The loss of 4-star prospect Trevion Thompson to the receiving stable at Clemson will be tough to overcome, but Hillside is deep on the wings as well.

Returning all-conference star Miles Kelly heads that receiving corps and the six-man rotation will include Ray Green Jr., DeShawn Stephens, Brian Hightower, Krah and Marcus Bowling.

There’s plenty of size in that group. Hightower is 6-3, Stephens 6-2 and Bowling 6-1.

“We’ve got guys who can tote the load and catch the ball,” King said.

Asked about replacing Thomas-Williams and Thompson, King waxed philosophical. “The thing about having stars and depending on them is it’s easy (for opposing defenses) to try and take away the stars. ... I think we’ll be a more complete offense this year.”

Defensively, back Kalen McCain took his talents to N.C. State, but there’s plenty coming back.

Up front, Laurence Fogg (6-0, 205) and Josh Alston (5-10, 205) will man the ends, freshman Shamon Mercier (6-4, 285) is at tackle along with all-conference star Markus Crutchfield (6-0, 235).

At linebacker in the 4-3 are all-conference pick Keith Beasley (6-2, 210), Jarrett McCarter (6-1, 225) and Nate Barrett (6-0, 200). Traevon Hayes (5-11, 200) will also be in the mix.

The defensive backfield features all-conference returnee Jalon Bethea at free safety, Fayetteville E.E. Smith transfer Raymond Rouse at strong safety and Gerald Wilkes and Jordan transfer Kobie Scotton at the corners.