People who have followed Clayton football for years might not have been ready for the kind of air show the Comets put on last season.
But coach Randy Pinkowski, a longtime Clayton assistant under the iconic Gary Fowler, wasn’t looking for attention in his second season at the helm, was just adjusting to the Comets’ personnel and the times.
“Twenty-five hundred yards worth of passing is a huge total for Clayton High School,” said Pinkowski, who coached at C.B. Aycock for 14 seasons before returning to Clayton. I’m not a records guy, but it’s probably the most Clayton has ever thrown for in modern football.”
Pinkowski’s offense has been a big departure from the grind-it-out style that had made the Comets successful for so many years, but he said he still wants to respect the school’s generations-long tradition established under the late Glenn Nixon before Fowler took over.
Clayton’s home field is going to be dedicated as “Nixon-Fowler Stadium” before the season opener against county rival Cleveland on Aug. 21.
“With the competition level we were in 2A when I first got here, we could be dominant running the football,” Pinkowski said. “But when I went to (Aycock) we could not do those things. We never had a 6-foot-4, 225-pound fullback who could run over anybody’s defensive end.
“We’d sit around and say ‘How can we move the football when we can’t block anybody or outrun anybody?’ And option football is a great field-leveler. Then we dropped the quarterback behind the line. And the zone-read offense is option football.”
He said the players like the wide-open offense more, it’s easier to slow down a fast team than speed up a slow one, and that the fans seem to like seeing something resembling what they see in televised games at higher levels.
One of the Comets’ biggest challenges will be to replace quarterback Eric Hoy, who was responsible for 74 percent of the offense last season and is now at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.. But Pinkowski said the team will be better at numerous positions.
“We’re going to miss Eric more as a person and a leader,” the coach said. “No matter who the quarterback is, he won’t have to carry the load Eric carried. We have three quality running backs and that many quality receivers. I don’t know what’s happening in Clayton, but we’re going to have a dozen (transfer) kids coming into the program who weren’t here last year. And we started six sophomores last year who are now juniors.”
Pinkowski said senior Joe Whittington, who was Hoy’s backup and completed 11 of his 12 passes last season, will likely start the opener. Sophomore Landen Leiser, who started for the junior varsity team last season, and junior Bryce Swackhammer will also be ready.
The coach said senior Blake “Neon” Joyner, who was Hoy’s top target last season, will line up in several different spots to get him the ball in space. Senior Brooks Verona (6-2, 270) will center an experienced offensive line.
Senior linebacker Micheal Kwiatkowski, who led the Comets with three interceptions last year, is also the top returning tackler with 49.
No matter who the players are, Pinkowski said his goals will be the same.
“(Coaches) Gary and Glenn set a high standard here, but it is a little bit of a burden,” Pinkowski said. “When we walked out with a stripe on our helmets people wondered what I was doing. But the core values they had established are what we want to continue. We want to show class and character and also have success from a won-loss perspective.”
Meet the Comets
Offense: Zone-read, spread option.
Top contributors: WR Blake “Neon” Joyner; TE John Ross Parrish; QB Joe Whittington; C Brooks Verona; OT Cole Fitzsimmons; G Adonis Kinsey; G Anthony Duffy; LB Derran Demps; LB Kyron Bennett; LB Nick Greco; NG Dylan Carter; S Micheal Kwiatkowski; S Jordan Riggins.
Expected team strength: Depth at most positions.
Question mark: How to replace QB Eric Hoy, who was MVP in the N.C. East-West All-Star Game as a receiver.
Player they’ll miss the most: Hoy, who provided 74 percent of the Comets’ total yardage last season.
The main number: 4.39. That’s the fastest 40 time recorded by Joyner, who had 2,014 all-purpose yards in 2014 as a junior.
The quote: Pinkowski: “You drive down the street and see a bunch of kids playing football, what are they doing? They all want to be quarterback and they all want to throw the ball down field as far as they can. You aren’t seeing kids playing tackle football and out there trying to see who can run who over.”
Game to watch: East Wake in the Greater Neuse River opener Sept. 18. The Warriors, coming off a second place finish in the conference, won 54-35 last season in Wendell.
Last five seasons
2014: 6-6 (3-4), 4A first round
2013: 7-5 (3-3), 4A first round
2012: 9-4 (6-1), 4A second round
2011: 5-7 (4-3), 4A first round
2010: 7-6 (4-3), 4A second round
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Up next: South Johnston, North Johnston (online), South Granville