Coming off of a winless season last year, having a fresh start is a much-welcomed sight for the North Johnston football team.
Helping to clean the slate is first-year head coach Ashley Ennis, who brings with him all the credibility that a combined 19-4 record over two seasons as head coach of perennial 3A power Erwin Triton provides, as well as several years as a successful assistant coach.
In addition to installing a new offensive scheme, changing a culture and expectations will take time, something that Ennis understands.
“We’re going to get there-- it’s a process,” Ennis said. “We’ve got to crawl before we can walk. Our biggest goal right now is to get a little better each and every day and to be competitive.”
To be competitive in a difficult Eastern Plains 2A Conference, the Panthers will need to keep the ball to shorten games, limit mistakes and win the turnover margin.
Early on in the season, the Panthers will look to rely on an experienced offensive line to lead the way offensively. Greg Castle (6-foot-3, 275 pounds), an all-conference selection from last year, is joined by familiar faces Jacob Cuddington (6-5, 265) and Ethan Holland who form the nucleus of a line that will need to be strong to facilitate the new Wing-T attack Ennis will implement.
“We’re looking for the line to click a little earlier (in the season) and then the backs have got to start developing that trust,” said Ennis. “If the line’s blocking well then it’s a lot easier to be one of those backs and that trust gets there.”
Quamel Kenion, who has impressed Ennis both with his tough, physical running style as well as his strong work ethic, figures to be a key component in the backfield for North Johnston. Joining Kenion most likely will be some combination of Tracy Barnes, Jahvante Dublin, A.J. Edwards and Ben Howell. The Panthers will likely a running back by committee approach to prevent other teams from keying in on one guy.
Dallas Krob has been picking up the offense and will be asked to manage the game at the quarterback position.
Ennis points to needing to limit mistakes on offense and being aggressive on defense to stop teams on third down and create turnovers as working hand-in-hand.
“As a young team and program, we’ve got to help ourselves out a little bit,” shared Ennis. “We can’t have bad, silly penalties that set us back that will make it hard for us to overcome.
“We want to shorten the game as much as we can and we want to move the ball. The offense can help our defense. Then we want our defense to get teams off the field on third down and give us another crack at it offensively.”
Jayvon Booker will provide a physical presence on the defensive side of the ball in either the secondary or possibly as linebacker. Armani Booker, Jayvon’s younger brother gives the Panthers some much-needed speed.
Barnes will help at the corner back position, Edwards figures to be a key asset at linebacker while Castle, Cuddington and Holland will be called upon to be on the line of first resistance.
“We’ve got to play together as a unit,” said Ennis of his defense. “Everyone will have to do their job and stay very disciplined.”
North Johnston will look for some early success in its non-conference schedule as the Panthers open up at home against Louisburg and Bunn before going on the road to take on local rivals Corinth Holders and Princeton.
Lakewood and North Lenoir are also on the docket before North Johnston enters play in the Eastern Plains, a conference Ennis describes as being quite possibly the toughest 2A league top to bottom in the East.
Depth will be of some concern for Ennis and the rest of his coaching staff as North Johnston will need many of its players to play both ways as the Panthers will enter the season with 28 varsity players.
“Just like a lot of 1A and 2A teams, we’ve got to stay healthy and avoid the injury bug best we can,” said Ennis. “These guys have got to get in shape, got to get tougher and will have to be some warriors and we’ll have to build some depth.”
In order to taste some success either with wins or initially by just staying close in games until the fourth quarter, Ennis is looking for his young team to buy into what he and the coaching staff are selling: playing hard and together for the entire game.
“We’ve got to get the kids to buy into what we’re doing,” Ennis said. “So far, they have. When you change the culture, it’s obviously a lot different for them, the things that we do and the things that we expect.
“We’ve got to find the guys who will go to battle for our program on Friday nights--that’s where the whole change in culture takes place.”