Saturday, August 11, 2018

Five Questions for the 2018 High School Football Season

The 2018 football season kicks off next week and fans across the state are excited to cheer on their teams each Friday night for the next three or four months. Coaches and players have been together over the last two weeks in training camp and will hit the gridiron with championship dreams in their sights.
Last year's season opener between Scotland and Mallard Creek

With this new season kicking off comes several questions from around the state that will be answered as the season progresses. Here is a look at some of the top questions we have for the 2018 season:

Is Hough the most talented team in the state?

Most coaches are happy to have at least one elite college prospect on their roster. Hough head coach Matt Jenkins has multiple prospects on each side of the ball. Nine of the Top 100 class of 2019 players (h/t 247Sports – each player's rank in the Top 100 is listed) in North Carolina will suit up for the Huskies this season, led by Tennessee recruit Tyus Fields (#6) at cornerback. Joining Field in the defensive backfield will be Jalen Frazier (#37, NC State) and Bryson Whitehead (#86, Kent State). Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be the job of DL Gio Paez (#40, Wisconsin) and OLB Kevon Hilliard (#95, Charleston Southern). Wake Forest-bound wide receiver Nolan Groulx (#13) hopes to be on the receiving end of a lot of passes from future Temple Owl Kennique Bonner-Steward (#79) along with Austin Robinson (#59), a Miami (OH) recruit. The embarrassment of riches even extends to the special teams where Camden Lewis (#100), a Minnesota commit, will handle placekicking duties for Jenkins and his crew. The Huskies reached the state semifinals last year and hope this year's squad will get over the hump and to the title game for the first time in school history.

What impact will consolidated schools have on athletics?

Many high school football fans are used to seeing new schools popping up every few years as North Carolina's population skyrocketed in the 1990s and early 2000s. After the recession of the late 2000s, counties and school systems began looking at ways to save costs as funding for education began to decline. One solution was to consolidate existing schools to reduce facility and staffing costs. It's definitely an adjustment for the young student-athletes involved. Once bitter rivals become classmates and teammates as new mascots, colors, and uniforms are introduced. Two counties are consolidating schools in time for the 2018 season and at least one has announced its intention to do so in 2019. Along the Virginia border, the newly branded Vance County High School include students from the former Northern and Southern Vance High Schools. The Vipers will play in the Northern Carolina 2A conference. Washington County High School will combine Creswell and recent football power Plymouth. The Panthers will assume Plymouth's old spot in the 1A Albemarle Athletic Conference. For 2019, the brand-new Montgomery Central High School will open and replace East and West Montgomery.

Will the Smoky Mountain Conference win another state championship?

One thing that has been for certain through prep football history in North Carolina has been the strength of the Smoky Mountain Conference. Teams from this conference have won over thirty state football titles over the last fifty years and ten title game appearance over the last decade. While traditional football powers such as Robbinsville, Murphy, and Swain have routinely been title contenders each season, in 2017 a new school sought to join the championship crowd. When Kent Briggs took over at Cherokee in 2014, the Braves were coming off of a 0-11 season and a roster of barely thirty players. The rebuilding process was slow, but it eventually paid off for the Cherokee faithful. Over the next few seasons, the Braves improved their record, even posting a winning record for the first time in eight years in 2016. When the 2017 season started, Briggs knew that senior leadership from four-year starters Tye Mintz and Byron Locust could be the determining factor in making a deep playoff run. Four months later, the Braves were celebrating a 21-13 win in the state championship game. With plenty of talent returning this season, the Smoky Mountain Conference race will be one of the closest in Western North Carolina.

What impact will increased skill development have on teams this fall?

One change that the NCHSAA made at their winter meeting last year was altering the guidelines regarding skill development for football. Teams may now have an unlimited number of players at skill development sessions instead of a fixed number as in the past. While these up to ninety-minute sessions are voluntary, coaches are only able to supervise and not "coach up" technique. Contact is not allowed nor is scrimmaging another team. While some coaches see this as a step in the right direction, others would like to see it take further and allow them to get inexperienced players more reps or use the time to install new offensive and defensive schemes. An athletic trainer or EMT has to be on site if the players are wearing pads and helmets. For coaches hoping this will give their players a leg up on the football season, 2018 will be the litmus test on how effective the new change will be.

Can Duplin County repeat its magical 2017 season?

Duplin County has four high schools. In 2017, three of the schools appeared in state title games with Wallace-Rose Hill winning the 2A title, its fourth in a row and sixth in the last decade. North Duplin played for the 1A crown and East Duplin lost by only two points in the 2AA game. Traditional football power James Kenan was the only school to not make a title game last year. While East Duplin graduated over 3000 yards worth of rushing from this past season, look for new faces in the backfield like Laquan Brown to put up monster numbers in the East Central Conference in 2018. Wallace-Rose Hill's Kevin Motsinger will look to offensive returners Michael Basden and Kameron Donaldson to try and match last year's 44 points per game average. Hugh Martin's North Duplin Rebels should be the favorites to repeat in the 1A Carolina Conference with the biggest test probably coming from Lakewood on October 15th.

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