Only three defensive starters are coming back to the Wakefield football team, but having its starting quarterback return will make a world of difference.
Wolverines coach Rod Sink cited Matt McKay’s return as the greatest team strength this season.
McKay led the Cap-8 Conference with 2,119 passing yards as a junior last year. His 1,019 rushing yards were enough for third in the league, and he was the only quarterback among the conference’s top five rushers in 2015.
“From his sophomore year to his junior year, he improved exponentially,” Sink said of McKay, an N.C. State commit who threw for 22 touchdowns. “If he performs as well as he did last year, he should make us quite competitive.”
Wakefield, which finished second in the conference behind Wake Forest, was competitive last season. The Wolverines lost four games, two of those coming against high-quality Middle Creek and Wake Forest teams. Those two squads combined for a 26-2 record.
Wakefield opens its regular season at Middle Creek on Aug. 19, Sink’s most important game at this point. His team was 5-1 on the road last year.
“We come out everyday and know who we’ve got to play,” he said. “Middle Creek is ranked No. 1 (in the News & Observer). I think they deserve it. They’re returning a lot of players, so they’re going to be very strong. To come out against an opponent like that, you definitely have to be strong and be on your game, especially having to go there.”
Sink noted Holly Springs and Southern will also be huge tests for a Wakefield team he hopes will get going quicker offensively than it did last season.
He leaned on his defense last year. This season, he will rely on defensive lineman Dawon Winston-Burnette and linebacker Tavin Sharp to lead. Safety Andrew Bennett will provide the experience in the secondary, as the Wolverines face a challenge in replacing so many players from that side of the ball.
McKay said playing against the defense has also helped him improve.
“As I make them better, they make me better,” McKay said.
Matt McKay lost his top receiver in Marius Cooper. Who will be his new target?
Sink admitted Cooper is hard to replace. The receiver reeled in 1,116 yards last year to lead the conference. He was McKay’s most reliable target.
McKay showed confidence in a few new guys who can step into that role, while Sink said he wouldn’t mind a receiver-by-committee look.
“We have a lot of young guys coming up,” said McKay, who feels he can duplicate his production last season.
Sink said offseason conversations revolved heavily around who would replace Cooper, who had 15 of the team’s 22 receiving touchdowns.
“The receivers coming back, they’re all good,” Sink said. “They’re very good receivers, they’re just not Cooper.”
Does Wakefield have a shot at competing for a conference title?
“We’re going to find out quickly,” Sink said.
Middle Creek will be a tough opponent, and the next three regular-season games will provide a measuring stick for how the Wolverines can compete in the Cap-8. They will have a bye before meeting Southern.
Last season, the Wolverines dropped their season opener but went on a five-game winning streak before meeting 2015 Cap-8 champ Wake Forest. Wakefield lost, 16-3, holding a high-powered offense to two touchdowns.
The Wolverines fell to Millbrook in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs but defeated the Wildcats in the regular season to eventually take second in the league.
“From what I can tell in the Cap-8, everyone has gotten better,” Sink said. “We graduated a lot, so I don’t know where we’re really going to fall in that pecking order. Sanderson’s got a good defense. We saw them several times this summer. We obviously know Wake Forest will be strong. Millbrook has Larry Rountree. From my understanding, Heritage, and I have not seen them play, but they’ve done well this summer. They’re going to be pretty stout I’m sure.
“I think our conference … will be competitive. We’ll have to bite, claw and scratch for everything.”
What makes McKay such a dual-threat quarterback?
Sink wasn’t shy about saying McKay is one of the best passers the team has had in recent years.
“To reference that, he may not know exactly where to go with the ball sometimes, but he has great arm strength,” McKay said. “He’s made every throw in the book. That’s what Matt has; that’s what he brings to the table. On top of that, he runs as well as anybody.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
More on the Wolverines
Last year: 8-4 (5-2 Cap-8 4A), first round 4AA playoffs
Five-year average: 9-3 (5-2)
Preseason N&O rank: No. 9
Contributors: Matt McKay (Sr., QB), Andrew Bennett (Sr., FS/RB), Tavin Sharp (Sr., MLB), Dawon Winston-Burnette (Sr., DL)
The number: 3 – Returning starters on defense
The quote: “My goal is to get that conference championship and go deep into the playoffs, further than the second round,” said Wakefield defensive lineman Dawon Winston-Burnette.
Aug. 19 at Middle Creek, 7 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. Holly Springs, 7 p.m.
Sep. 2 BYE
Sep. 9 at Southern Durham, 7 p.m.
Sep. 16 vs. Riverside, 7 p.m.
Sep. 23* at Sanderson, 7 p.m.
Sep. 30* vs. Enloe, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7* at Wake Forest, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14* vs. Millbrook, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21* vs. Broughton, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28* at Heritage, 7 p.m.
Nov. 4* vs. Leesville Road, 7 p.m.