There are constants every year in the football realm of the Greater Neuse River 4A, even this year with more than half of the teams in the league sporting new coaches.
Garner, clad in plain blue helmets typically shows the way with game-breaking players on both sides of the ball every Friday night and a wealth of coaching experience.
“There’s a wealth of championship knowledge in this conference and you look at who teams hired and all you can think is nobody took a step backwards,” said new Clayton coach Randy Pinkowski. “(West Johnston coach) Jimmy Williams, (Harnett Central coach) Dave Thomas and (Garner coach) Thurman (Leach) are all experienced, proven coaches. Thurman’s never been a head coach but he’s been a really important part of a great coaching staff for more than two decades.”
It will be a year of transition in a way with just seven teams fielding varsity squads with new school Rolesville joining the varsity fray next fall.
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Garner (15-1, 7-0 in 2012) is expected to be the team to beat again, coming off of two straight appearances in the eastern 4AA regional championship game and the winner of six of the past eight conference titles.
Scoring is something the Trojans have had little issue with over the past two seasons and with standout junior Nyheim Hines (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) back to lead another talented group in the backfield, that shouldn’t change.
Hines and fellow junior Raekwon Britton will get the majority of the carries at tailback and should have the benefit of a good offensive line to run behind.
Garner’s biggest question mark is its defensive front seven. The Trojans lost six of seven starters there and first-year coach Leach admits that they need players to step up to take hold of those positions.
“We’re very young compared to what we’ve been,” Leach said. “We’re not as deep either but we’ve still got quality kids.”
The team thought most likely this season to threaten Garner’s run of three straight league titles is Knightdale (7-4, 5-2). It’s a spot some teams have struggled to handle but coach Rob Senseney sought out former Harnett Central coach Marc Morris, who led the last team other than Garner to win the league title, for advice.
“Those (Harnett Central) kids dismissed the name on the front of that jersey,” Senseney said. “They had that group of kids who decided they didn’t care who they played. If you start thinking about that Garner name, the tradition, the crowd, those things, you’re going to lose.”
The Knights return 16 starters (eight on each side of the ball) with talented quarterback Marquavious Johnson leading a speedy group of seven backs and receivers.
“We’ve got a lot of kids we need to get the ball too,” Senseney said. “It’s a good problem to have, something we think about a lot. Obviously, we’re not going to have one kid run the ball every down.”
Defensively, Knightdale’s strength should be its linemen and linebackers, although Senseney said the secondary, although inexperienced, should be improved as well.
It’s athletes like the ones the Knights can roll out in various positions that keep coaches scheming in the off-season. Pinkowski’s reshuffled coaching staff at Clayton has spent a lot of the offseason watching film to familiarize themselves with the new league opponents.
“There’s a whole lot of athleticism in this conference,” Pinkowski said. “Top to bottom as we watched film, every team had a guy who could dominate a game. We’d watch a film one day, come back raving about a new guy we saw. Every team has a player you have to come up with a defensive scheme to combat every week.”
Clayton (9-4, 6-1) will employ the same potent wing-T attack that produced three 1,000-yard rushers last season. Senior Jace Brown is the only one of those backs returning this season. He will lineup behind senior quarterback Sam May, who Pinkowski expects to have a more varied role this season.
Fellow Johnston County school West Johnston (3-7, 2-5) is hoping to field an improved defensive unit for Williams, the former East Wake coach. The Wildcats gave up 236 points in their final six games of 2012.
Southeast Raleigh (6-6, 3-4) has more than a dozen starters back as well but second-year head coach Marvin Burke knows his team’s progress will be measured by what happens on Friday nights.
The Bulldogs’ defensive secondary and linebackers will be one of the most experienced units in the area. Free safety Jaquell Taylor, who had five interceptions in three games before breaking his collarbone last season, cornerbacks Jeremiah Rowland and David Cannon are back in the secondary. Timarcus Simpson, who is 6-3, 215 pounds, Jamerson Lockley and David Onyiego are the linebackers.
“That experience allows us to use multiple coverages and disguise what we’re doing in coverage more,” Burke said. “That’s going to take pressure off of our defensive line so we can run some more games up front.”
Harnett Central has 14 starters back from a 2-8 (1-6) squad but coach Dave Thomas says his squad is “still very, very young.” There is young talent at the quarterback position with sophomore Taylor Smith returning.
East Wake (3-8, 3-4)– with 15 returning starters, including junior third-year starter Damontay Rhem at running back – hopes this is the year the Warriors actually taste the playoffs instead of just smelling it.
“We’ve been sniffing it for two years,” said East Wake coach John Poulnott. “But it’s just slipped away from us. We’ve got guys who are really hungry.”