Enthusiasm doesn’t always equate to wins, but that’s exactly what happened for the Wake Christian Academy football team a season ago.
The Bulldogs broke a string of eight consecutive losing seasons with a winning regular season record for the first time since 2004 and finished a successful campaign with a first round playoff loss and a 6-6 overall mark.
With a vast majority of that roster still intact entering this season and with a productive off-season under the helm of second-year head coach Stephen Cochran, there’s reason to believe that a rejuvenated Wake Christian program could continue in its new winning ways.
Adding to that excitement is some experience as the Bulldogs lost just four graduating seniors from last year’s team and Cochran is already noticing what another year of familiarity with offensive and defensive schemes could mean for his players.
“It’s kind of neat seeing that with these kids, we’ve kept a similar system on offense and defense and they’re understanding things quicker,” Cochran said. “Last year we were teaching them a bunch of new stuff and at the same time figuring out how they fit into that new stuff.
“Now the skeletons of the systems are in place so they’re picking up things a little bit faster so that’s a neat thing to see.”
Luke Ryals, the Bulldogs’ two-time reigning defensive MVP at linebacker, will step in to try to fill the shoes of Beau Barger, who led Wake Christian’s attack last season as the NCISAA all-state quarterback accounted for more than 2,700 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns.
Cochran credited Ryals’ leadership along with Barger’s for being vital to last season’s success and the reason why the entire team bought into what a then first-year head coach was selling.
For that reason and for the pieces that Ryals will find around him, Cochran feels Ryals is the right player to lead the Bulldogs’ spread option.
“Luke understands the run game perfectly and he is growing into the passing game so I don’t think we’ll have tremendous drop off there,” Cochran noted. “Luke has some more mature weapons around him now so I think Luke is going to have a great year at quarterback.”
One of those key weapons for Ryals will be Kyle Patterson. The athletic Patterson, who posted a five-touchdown game a year ago, was Wake Christian’s second leading rusher and receiver from last season and Cochran envisions being able to utilize the senior’s quickness in the open field.
Conner Collins, Logan Hallman and Adam Jones also figure to be key contributors to the Bulldogs’ ground attack that averaged 177 yards a game a season ago and was effective in both rushing up the middle and getting to the outside with sweeps and option runs.
Senior wideouts Jonathan Earnest and Hunter Wilson will be the targets when Ryals goes to the air.
Wilson and his 6-foot-4 frame provides a big target for Ryals to work with and Earnest’s understanding of the offense as well as his ability to get open should allow Wake Christian to have nice offensive balance yet again as they did a year ago.
“The offense is designed to spread it around and whoever’s hot, let’s get them the football,” said Cochran. “So we go sideline-to-sideline or we can go up the gut. We can spread it around but, at the same time, if someone’s hot, we can feature them.”
The heady Will Cruikshank, who Cochran predicts will one day be a likely candidate for a football coach himself, will anchor an experienced line at his center position.
John Fuller, Andrew Hinton, Andrew Spain return and Michigan transfer Joe Pomrehn figure to help round out a solid, albeit thin line, underscoring one of the keys to a run at a winning record: health.
“We’ve got some kids in there who are fundamentally sound but the line is a concern just from a depth perspective,” Cochran said. “We have some real good kids but you’ve got to play both sides of the ball and so you wear offensive linemen out pretty quickly.”
Ryals, who Cochran describes as ‘a linebacker who will also play quarterback’ will man his linebacker position again, having led the Bulldogs in tackles in each of the past two seasons from that spot.
Sophomore Conner Collins made a huge impact as a freshman last year and will be part of an impressive linebacking unit that will also feature Fuller, Hallman and Spain.
The secondary should also be a strength for Wake Christian. Cameron Hinnant, who led the Bulldogs with five interceptions last year, returns, as does shutdown corner Kyle Patterson. Adam Jones and John Toler, who worked well together at free safety last year and allowed the Bulldogs to play a lot of man coverage, will join forces again and the hard-working Evan DiSena figures to be a factor in the back as well.
Hallman and Jones will share kicking duties for the Bulldogs this season.
In Cochran’s short stint as coach, the program has seen quite a bit of change.
From getting its own full-field practice facility before last season, to a revamped weight room this off-season to new uniforms to be revealed this fall, the excitement for what Wake Christian football could be is catching on.
“I don’t think we’ve peaked yet; we’re still in the process of rising,” Cochran said of the program. “When the kids came back from Christmas break, we had a new weight room. We’re getting some new uniforms because of somebody who is excited about our football program got involved and wanted to see us get some new uniforms.
“We had a really good summer turnout so there’s a lot of enthusiasm. So it’s starting to spread not just to kids here playing football but to the Wake Christian community. They’re starting to get excited about what could be out here on the football field.”