The reigning Greater Neuse River 4A football champion is hardly recognizable.
Only four starters are returning this fall from a Knightdale varsity team that finished the 2013 season 11-2 overall and 6-0 in the league. It also will have a new coach. Despite the new look, Knights leaders say the vibe and expectations have not changed.
“For the ones I’ve talked to, especially the rising seniors, they feel we have a chance to compete with anyone in the conference and go deep into the playoffs,” first-year coach Cedric Dargan said. “Their expectations are about as high as mine are.”
Dargan, who was Knightdale’s junior varsity coach in 2007-08 and defensive coordinator in 2010-13, sees an exciting opportunity at his doorstep. It’s an all new environment at the school; a new principal, a new coach, a new team and a new athletics director in former Leesville Road football coach Chad Smothers.
“I’ve been here seven years,” Dargan said. “I’ve been through every head coach in Knightdale High School history and have been through every up and down, so I don’t feel any pressure by it.
“It’s actually been exciting so far. I wouldn’t trade our kids for anyone else. They bought into our new system and haven’t pushed back at all.”
The Knights’ defense – which allowed about 18 points per game last season – largely will remain the same in terms of strategy. It, too, has a new leader in Jermod Mapp, former Shaw University assistant and Lincoln University (Pa.) special teams and defensive backs coach.
The three starters returning on defense are seniors Jake DeShields (middle linebacker), Jamie Brown (cornerback) and Justin Blango (cornerback).
The coach also expects quality play from seniors Kameron Ballen (inside linebacker), Devin Lessane (back) and Rodney Smith (tackle), and juniors Joshua Schenck (outside linebacker) and Corey Wiggins (tackle/offensive guard).
Lessane “is a defensive back we will be counting a lot on this year who really came on strong in our playoff run last year,” Dargan said. “Rodney Smith will be a stud for us, and Corey Wiggins, technique-wise, you don’t get any better than him.”
Offensively, Dargan said things will be “much different” than last year to fit the personality of the new wave of players. The lone returning starter on offense is all-conference lineman Duncan Harris.
Battling for quarterback are last year’s backup Nick Pope, a senior, and junior Andre Willis. Primary targets for whoever wins the quarterback job are seniors Jarred Taylor (wide receiver), Preston Minter (tight end) and DeShields (tight end).
A bevy of options in the ground attack consists of Ballen (fullback), Lessane (running back), Schenck (fullback), and junior running backs Malik Branch, Khaaliq Lewis, Taurez Williams and Jaelen Williams.
“They’re all looking good right now in the system we’re running,” Dargan said. “It seems to fit them well, so I’m looking for a big year out of all of them.”
Last year’s run-heavy scheme will be replaced by one that calls for passing about 40 percent of the time.
“We’re going to be very aggressive on offense and defense, and on special teams we’re going to take risks,” Dargan said. “We’re going to play to win.”
Knightdale will open with an Aug. 14 scrimmage at Rocky Mount, followed by an Aug. 16 contest at Cardinal Gibhons in the highschoolot.com jamboree. That scrimmage will begin at 8:45 p.m. The Knights open the regular season at home Aug. 22 against Sanderson. Kickoff for that game will be 7 p.m.