Top-ranked Garner has new players, coaches to carry on football culture

cbest@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

— One definition of culture reads, “that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.” In the world of Triangle high school football, Garner could show up in a list of accompanying synonyms.

The Trojans, who open the 2013 season as The News & Observer’s top-ranked team, have been the benchmark for area teams for the past 30 years. The past two seasons – which have featured back-to-back regional championship game appearances, a combined 29-2 record and five playoff wins against fellow Wake County schools – have only reinforced that opinion.

The winning culture of Garner football is something the Trojans are aware of, but they don’t just expect the wins to roll in once the season starts.

“It’s a culture,” said first-year coach Thurman Leach, “but it’s a culture that has to be learned.”

This season, more of the familiar names that helped Garner achieve those lofty accomplishments have moved into the category of former Trojans, leaving a largely new and inexperienced group of players to carry on that tradition. There is new leadership at the top with Leach, the 23-year veteran Garner assistant coach, taking over for veteran coach Nelson Smith.

The Trojans team that hits the field Friday night to take on rival Middle Creek doesn’t want to be any different than teams of the past. They will feature standout junior runner Nyheim Hines, a deep offensive line to create running lanes and several other game-breaking playmakers.

There is inexperience on defense but promising talent as well.

“They’ve seen it done but they haven’t done it themselves,” Leach said. “We’ve got a lot of kids going from backup or mop up roles to starting roles.”

The Trojans return four offensive linemen who had significant playing time last season: center and guard Dylan Counts (5-foot-11, 245 pounds), guard Caleb Pipkin (5-10, 253), tackle Najee Simpson (6-3, 337) and Terry Whitehead (6-1, 235) who can play tight end or tackle.

“The offensive line is the best part of our football team right now,” Leach said. “We’ve got a lot of experience and talent there.”

Sophomore Jaelun Dean, senior D.J. Epps and junior Nazell Jackson are other promising players on the Trojans line.

Hines, the standout scorer, returns in the backfield after contributing 22 touchdowns last season. He ran for 731 yards and 14 touchdowns, returned four kicks for touchdowns and caught four TD passes.

“The biggest difference between Nyheim this year and last year is that he really knows the offense,” Leach said. “It was all new for him last year. Now, he’s more assertive and does everything with confidence.”

Hines has scholarship offers from every in-state BCS school and his name is rising on many schools’ lists across the country. He also plays defensive back and Leach said that will continue on an as-needed basis.

Junior Raekwon Britton, who spent most of his time in the defensive secondary last season, will join Hines. The Trojans are still figuring out the fullback position.

Senior left-hander Brighton Hudson takes over at quarterback. Hudson went 9-0 on the mound for Garner’s baseball team last spring.

“I don’t consider Hudson a green quarterback,” Leach said. “He’s looked great so far. He’s becoming a more vocal leader and is a guy used to controlling games as a pitcher. He’s a poised guy.”

Hudson will throw to a group of receivers led by returnee Brayden Sims (6-2, 187), seniors Jaykwon Harris and Jawan Grissett, junior David Hamilton and junior basketball standout Julius Barnes. Barnes (5-7, 145) caught more than a dozen touchdown passes on the Garner junior varsity team as a freshman but didn’t play football last season.

“If he can capture something like that again and help our veteran receivers,” Leach said, “we can create a lot of space for Nyheim.”

The defensive line is young and the linebacking unit – a strength the last two years – doesn’t have much experience.

“We need some middle linebackers to step up,” Leach said. “Our inexperience is really showing up there. But our secondary is not too bad. I don’t think we’ll have too much drop off there.”

Seniors Michael Jenkins and Samuel Stidwell should be leaders in the secondary.

“We’ve got some seniors who are getting the opportunity to play,” Leach said. “It’s the most inexperienced group we’ve had in recent years and we could use some of our offensive linemen to fill in there.”

The Trojans’ defense will be tested early with games against Middle Creek and 3A power Cleveland up first.

“They have to believe in it and learn it,” Leach said. “We’ve lost entire defenses in the past and been good the next year. This group can do the same thing.”

Best: 919-524-8895; Twitter: @dclaybest

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