News-Star: Sports

Rams have pieces in place

Cleveland’s Sterling Johnson, left, prepares to tackle South Johnston’s Clarence Crawford during a November 2013 game.
Cleveland’s Sterling Johnson, left, prepares to tackle South Johnston’s Clarence Crawford during a November 2013 game. News & Observer file photo

Cleveland hasn’t known anything other than success in its short football history. The Rams have won 31 games in their short three-year varsity history and posted a .667 winning percentage (6-of-9) in the playoffs.

Numbers appear to be on the reigning Two Rivers 3A Conference champions’ side again as the 2014 season begins. The Rams return 13 starters from a 9-4 club, including eight on defense.

Gone is former head coach Marc Morris and a few assistant coaches. Former defensive line coach Scott Riley is the new head coach and longtime quarterbacks coach Joe Capps moves into the offensive coordinator role.

The Cleveland defense’s strength would have to be considered the front seven, although two starters are back in the secondary as well. The defensive line is led by Clemson recruit Sterling Johnson (6-foot-5, 280 pounds) and two other returnees: Bryer Rogers and Lance Kirby, who shifts into a down position after starting at linebacker last season.

“Sterling Johnson is just a great football player,” Riley said. “And he’s become a great leader for our football team, done a lot to motivate them this off-season. And Bryer Rogers is a very big (6-4, 300) and physical linemen who is getting some Division II offers.”

Three other players with starting time at linebacker are returning as well: Quinton Ross, Jake Allen and Andrew Caldwell.

The secondary has returnees Malik Vick and Devon Avery.

Senior Aaron Farmer enters his third year behind center for Cleveland, coming off of a season in which he compiled just more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and more than 20 touchdowns.

Missing from the lineup will be Shrine Bowl back Isaac Martin who powered the Rams’ running attack for the past three seasons, but back are playmakers Patrick Jesequel and Corey Brown who got some playing time last year when Martin was injured. Greg Tyler and Zach Bunn should be contributors in the passing game.

“You don’t replace a guy like Isaac Martin with one player, but with Corey Brown, Daequan Goodwin, our tailback on JV last season, we have some players with varsity experience who we’ll use,” Riley said.

Junior center Zack Jacobs (6-4, 300) is the only returnee on the offensive line.

“Our offensive linemen are promising, but they’re still figuring out where to go these first couple of weeks,” Riley said. “We’ll be playing sophomores, juniors and a few seniors there. It will be a strength for us next year but they’ll have to grow up and get tougher during the early part of the year.”

The Rams will face the same challenges they did a season ago in their non-conference schedule. They open with a string of three consecutive games against nearby 4A rivals Clayton, Garner and West Johnston, and take on two 4A playoff teams (Green Hope and Durham Riverside) in addition to 3A Southern Wayne.

Clayton blasted the Rams in last year’s opener, but Cleveland rallied the next week to surprise Garner, winning one of the wildest games of the season, 45-44. A week later, they squeaked by West, 30-23.

“We want that schedule to get us ready for conference play,” Riley said. “Tough non-conference games only help you later in the season.”

That conference schedule will see Cleveland challenged by Triton, Corinth Holders and possibly others for the championship in what Riley expects will be a better conference across the board this fall.

“It’s always a one-week approach for us,” Riley said. “But we know Clayton, Garner and West Johnston are all big games for our community. Those games are about adjusting to the kind of talent, size and speed you’ll see if we get to the playoffs.

“You’d love to get as many wins as you can out of those games. Last year we went 3-3 in that (non-conference) stretch but that’s what helped us win a conference title I think.”