Princeton had rarely made much of a splash in North Carolina high school football until two things happened in 2012.
Young Derrick Minor came in as the new head coach, and sophomore Johnny Frasier moved up to the varsity.
And now the Bulldog program is a 1A state power.
Minor’s first campaign at the helm turned out a typical Princeton regular season - until that 2-8 team won three state playoff games before falling at eventual state 1A champ Plymouth in the Eastern title game. And last year the Bulldogs went 8-3 in the regular season, winning six straight games by at least 28 points before falling to Carolina 1-A nemesis and eventual state 1AA champ James Kenan by a touchdown in the second round.
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This will be Frasier’s last season in a Bulldog uniform before he goes off to play big-time college football. And barring some unforeseen catastophe he will play in that environment. He had 21 “offers” — and not 21 hopeless pitches from small colleges either, but all 21 from members of the ACC, SEC or Big Ten. The latest came from Notre Dame. Frasier made a verbal commitment to Florida State last week.
Frasier (6 feet, 220 pounds) — the locals call the running back their version of “Johnny Football” — will be the centerpiece of a team Minor says is capable of winning a state title this season.
But Minor also said he thinks the Bulldogs would be pretty good even without their best-known player, who rushed for 3,042 yards and scored 45 TDs last season and finished with 3,872 all-purpose yards and 50 TDs. He fumbled once, and the Bulldogs recovered it.
“With a game on the line we’ll put Johnny at safety and let him run down a guy going long, but it’s going to be ‘dire straits’ when that happens,” Minor said. “I doubt he’ll play 10 (defensive) plays a game. He only played two or three quarters in most games last year and we would pull him. I’m not going to keep him in just to run up scores.
“We’ve got a ton of really good skilled kids. Teams are not going to just be able to key on Johnny, and if they do we’re going to hurt them with other guys.”
Princeton returns nine starters on offense and five on defense. The biggest loss from last season was two-way tackle Matthew Peedin who is now at UNC Pembroke.
Senior quarterback Mike Wooten (6-3, 175) will be in his third season as a starter, passing for 1484 yards and 11 TDs and rushing for 201 with four TDs last year.
“He’s had three years in my system and will be that veteran leader on the team,” Minor said. “Are (opponents) going to stop the run or the pass? It’s hard to do.”
Wideouts Malcolm Best and Nick Hare — both juniors — and senior tight end Tanner Woodard return. So do four offensive down linemen - seniors tackles Quinton Rhue (6-2, 310) and Jared Pierce and center Waylon Woodall and junior guard Chris Sauls. Minor said junior Kiadae Richardson should be a very capable backup for Frasier.
Returning starters on defense include Rhue on the line and Woodard at end along with inside linebackers Cody Garner and Adrian Whack and outside linebacker Jeremy Wells. All of them are seniors except junior Whack.
“We’re going to try to minimize the guys going both ways to two or three,” Minor said. “Tanner may not come off the field except for special teams, but I’m pretty excited about our depth this year.”
Minor said sophomore cornerback/wideout Earl Gibson’s talent has a very high ceiling as well.
The Bulldogs should also be solid in the kicking game, with senior Vicente Mendez handling all the boots. As a rookie last season, the soccer standout hit 39 of 47 extra points and averaged 32.4 per punt.
“(Mendez) knows how to kick off a tee and knows how to hold a punt now,” Minor, a one-time Chowan kicker, said with a smile.
Minor said something in the program finally clicked before their first-round playoff game and revenge rematch with North Duplin two seasons ago, and the Bulldogs have been good ever since.
“They finally got everything we (coaches) had preached,” he explained. “They were eager to prove our record was not indicative of how good our team was. That game turned the program and the off-season. That was program foundation-builder.
“Now we just can’t be overconfident. If we’re humble and hungry we’ll be in good shape. If we rest on our past success, that’s setting us up for failure. But if we continue to work and be the best we can be every day both on and off the field, we’ll continue the success. We have to control our behavior and our work ethic and our heart, and we’ll be in good shape.”