DURHAM — Until somebody beats Hillside, winner of 23 straight conference games, the Hornets will remain the clear favorite to win another PAC-6 title.
Hillside has 16 starters returning from last year's 8-3 (6-0 PAC) team. Hornets coach Antonio King says that if anyone wanted to defeat Hillside, last year was their best chance.
"We're glad to accept the burden that everyone wants to beat us," King said. "We think we have enough talent to challenge any team in the state."
Hillside junior quarterback Naszir Forte-Ferguson will have plenty of support in 2013. Nearly the entire front line — except for conference offensive lineman of the year Javien Knight — is back.
When not handing off to Donte Thomas Williams (offers from Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame, West Virginia), Forte-Ferguson's chief passing target is likely to be multi-purpose back and receiver Trevion Thompson, an Under Armour All-American who is being courted by Clemson, N.C. State and North Carolina.
Hillside's nine returning starters on defense include PAC-6 defensive lineman of the year Khalen Howard.
With nine years at Hillside, six as head coach, King is the dean of PAC-6 coaches. Riverside's David Hackney, heading into his third season as coach, is the next most seasoned. Jordan's LeDwaun Harrison is in his second year. Northern, Person and East Chapel Hill all have first-year coaches.
With Southern moving over to the new Big Eight Conference, Northern Durham appears the No. 1 contender to beat the champs. The Knights went 6-5 overall, 4-2 in conference games last year and were in the title hunt until the last week of the season.
The Knights will miss running quarterback Brandon Brown and all-conference tailback Kylyn Flemming, not to mention three all-conference offensive linemen. Alphonso Gbojueh, who split time in the backfield with Flemming last year, should get a lot more carries this season.
Northern's real strength should be on defense, where the Knights have five potential all-conference players returning from a squad that gave up 14.8 points per conference game in 2012.
"Before Hillside, Northern was the giant on top of the conference until someone knocked us down," first-year Northern coach R.J. Wilson said. "It's time to get back up there. That's an attainable goal."
Based upon three straight years of consistent improvement under coach Bill Renner, including last year's playoff appearance, East Chapel Hill was tabbed by several area coaches as the team most likely to upset Hillside. But that was before Renner took his five-wide passing attack to Northwood.
First-year East coach Jon Sherman plans a more balanced attack for the Wildcats, led by sophomore Connor Stough. Powerful running back Colby Owens provides a good ground game. He also leads the improved East defense along with returning all-conference tackle Chris Alston.
Person's first-year coach David Kleine likewise advocates a balanced attack. His biggest challenge might be in numbers; some of his returning all-conference players, like safety Marquis Torain and defensive end LeRon Cash, will be needed on both sides of the ball.
Even one year of experience for Harrison as a head coach at Jordan is better than some of his counterparts. He feels that the Falcons learned from last year's fractious start, where they lost seven straight in mid-season and finished 2-9, 0-6 in conference games.
"They are a lot further along now than last year's group," he said.
Jordan's best feature should be its line; it's got back four down linemen — Aaron Rhames, Julian Humes, Grant Swigart and Aaron Harris — who fronted returning quarterback Matthew Gampe.
Riverside's Hackney believes one thing is paramount to avoid a repeat of a 1-9 season and 1-5 finish: "Not turning the ball over."
Riverside has 13 starters back, and Hackney believes they'll play solid defense, led by all-conference tackle Patrick Volk and all-conference defensive backs Stephan Jacobs and Cameron Roane.
Riverside running back Joel Evans will be asked to fill the void left by all-purpose player Darius Smiley's graduation.