Big Eight 3A Conference coaches believe they’ve got the most competitive and maybe the best overall football league in North Carolina. There is plenty of evidence.
In addition to Southern Durham, last year’s 3AA state champion, three other Big Eight teams won two-thirds of their games. Five league members went to the playoffs and three of those were knocked out by Southern Durham on its way to the state final.
Southern Durham coach Darius Robinson, who has been an assistant in both conferences, thinks the Spartans took a step up when they moved from the PAC-6 4A to the Big Eight 3A.
“Maybe it’s not the right thing to say, but I believe the Big Eight is a better conference than the PAC-6 over the past two years,” Robinson said. “The winner of the Big Eight is probably going to get another chance to play for the state championship this year.”
It starts with his team.
“When you look at the Big Eight, the first thing you see is the defending state champion at Southern Durham, and they’ve got almost everyone back,” said Northwood’s Bill Hall, the dean of Big Eight coaches with 14 years at the helm.
Northwood finished fourth in the league last year, after dropping a 56-54 shootout at Southern Durham. Orange finished second last year – losing only at Southern Durham, twice – but needed a last-second Hail Mary pass to escape fifth-place Chapel Hill with a 6-0 win.
Southern Durham remains the consensus favorite to repeat as Big Eight champion. The Spartans return nine defensive starters from last year’s 14-2 (7-0) team, and seven starters on offense, led by quarterback Kendall Hinton, the Big Eight’s offensive player of the year in 2013. He has committed to Wake Forest.
All-conference running back William Cameron (West Virginia) also committed early.
Orange (14-2, 6-1) quarterback Garrett Cloer returned bigger and stronger.. He passed for 2,800 yards and 34 touchdowns last year.
Cloer leads a backfield with most of its players back, including leading rusher Tay Jones (1,800 yards, 25 touchdowns) and big fullback Mike Bolden, fronted by all-state guard Zach Waggoner.
Northwood (8-4, 4-3) returns senior quarterback Ti Pinnix, who passed for 3,186 yards and 30 touchdowns last year. Running back Kadarus Rone and wideouts Imoh Udoh and Jalen Smith also return.
All-conference linebacker Jared Worthy and preseason all-state tackle Elijah Washington lead a veteran Chargers defense.
Cardinal Gibbons (9-4, 5-2) might need David Smith (7.0 yards per rush) to carry the ball more. It still has Earl Gill, who caught 75 passes last year for 1,066 yards. Linebacker Chris Karazin (12.5 tackles a game) leads 10 veterans on defense.
Two transfers from 4A rival East Chapel Hill, quarterback Connor Stough and all-PAC-6 wideout Arkavious Parks, increase expectations at Chapel Hill (4-8, 3-4). Guard Logan Tisch (6-3, 300) anchors the offensive line.
Cedar Ridge (2-9, 2-5) is looking to rebuild with interim coach Chris Casey and veteran quarterback Peyton Pappas.
Oxford Webb (3-8, 1-6) and Northern Vance (0-11, 0-7) still look at least one year away from chasing a playoff spot.