Football fans can expect see more of Orange in the coming season.
More size. More strength. Just more Panthers, period.
Things have changed a lot at Orange High School in the five years since Pat Moser took the 19-mile trip down U.S. Highway 70 from Graham, where in 10 years he led the Red Devils to a 71-24 record and a state championship, to take over as head coach of the Panthers.
Mired near the bottom of its conference for decades, Orange went 23-5 over the past two seasons. In 2012 and 2013, it took the eventual state champions to knock the Panthers out of the playoffs.
"I think we have a pretty good track record," Moser said recently. "We've gotten to the point where our players, when they walk onto the field, expect to win."
Moser welcomed 115 potential players, a record number. to the Orange campus on the first day of practice.
"Some of the old-timers around here say they've never seen anything like it," Moser said. "There's more excitement in the high school and in the kids coming out."
The Panthers have converted that energy into more size and strength. When Moser first arrived at Orange, two of his players could power clean at least 200 pounds. When the Panther staff tested the entire team shortly before the end of classes last spring, 40 Orange players could clean 200 or more pounds.
Orange graduated 21 seniors off last year's 12-2, 6-1 Big Eight runners-up, whose only losses were two games at 3AA state champion Southern Durham. But the Panthers return most of their starters, especially at the skill positions.
Senior quarterback Garrett Cloer stood at 6-3 when football season ended in 2013. He returned at 6-5, eager to mix it up in practice.
Moser said the initial days of practices were so physical, he and his staff had to rein in the players.
"The first day of hitting, they were trying to kill each other," he said. "We had to stop. We thought they might injure each other."
Returning all-conference linebacker Bryse Wilson, a "scary good" junior who's already committed to play baseball at North Carolina, was among the most physical Panthers in early workouts, Moser said. Orange graduated linebacker Nic Schultz, the team's leading tackler for two years, and Big Eight defensive player of the year J.D. Brooks, so Wilson will be counted upon to be an even bigger presence than in 2013.
Orange led the state's 3A teams in scoring defense for most of 2013. Orange out-scored 577-224 during the year and shut out seven.
"Our defense was strong last year, and most of them are back. So, we expect them to play well," Moser said.
That veteran defense includes four of the team's top linemen: Jake Frederick, Byron Stephenson, Mark Holt and Eric Compton.
Cloer passed for 2,800 yards and 34 touchdowns last year, with just three interceptions during the season, an impressive feat considering most people saw Orange as a run-oriented team.
"They were sneaky passes a lot of play-action," Moser noted.
Opposing defenses often were bedeviled last year by Orange's double wing and a fleet of running backs.
Orange's leading rusher, Tay Jones, returns for his senior year with 1,800 yards and 25 touchdowns to his credit. So is fullback Michael Bolden and wingback Drew Lemaster. Moser recruited “fast as lightning” Eryk Brandon-Dean from Orange’s conference champion basketball team to help fill the void left by wingback Patrick Pettiford’s departure for Winston-Salem State.
"Those guys will tote the mail most of the time," helped by the return of all-state offensive guard Zach Waggoner, Moser said.