The News & Observer’s All-Metro football team is full of players garnering high recruiting interest or filling the stat sheet with their ability to play multiple positions. This year’s team has 35 players, including the AP offensive player of the year (D.H. Conley quarterback Holton Ahlers), the Shrine Bowl MVP (Heritage’s Ricky Person Jr.) and five players from 4AA state champ Wake Forest.
There were also five picks from Heritage, nine players were named to the Shrine Bowl, four are U.S. Army All-Americans and four are repeat selections from last year’s All-Metro team (Ahlers, Lee County’s Jahmir Smith, Orange’s Payton Wilson and Heritage’s Joe Kane).
The players below are listed in order of their primary position.
QB: Holton Ahlers, D.H. Conley (Sr., 6-4, 235)
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East Carolina recruit passed for 3,763 yards (62.3 completion percentage) for 61 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions; ran for 933 yards and 14 touchdowns. His offense broke the NCHSAA record for the most points scored through 12 games (643). Ended his career as the NCHSAA's third all-time leading passer and second all-time in total offense. He’s also third in touchdown responsibility, third in passing touchdowns, fifth in completions and sixth in passing attempts. Was a back-to-back conference player of the year, and AP all-state selection. Was voted AP Offensive Player of the Year as a senior. His 61 touchdown passes this season are the fourth-most in single-season NCHSAA history, and his 75 combined touchdowns (rushing and passing) place him second. Also averaged 44.6 yards on his 12 punts, with nine of them landing inside the 20, and blocked an extra point. Was the Shrine Bowl MVP and is a two-time N&O All-Metro pick.
QB: Gunnar Holmberg, Heritage (Sr., 6-3, 190)
Duke recruit passed for 2,730 yards with a 66.8 completion percentage (183 of 274), throwing for 26 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. Also ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Was the co-offensive player of the year in the Northern Athletic Conference. Guided the Huskies to their first 10-game win streak in school history, and an appearance in the third round of the 4A playoffs.
QB: Dexter McDuffie, South Central (Sr., 5-9, 165)
Dual-threat quarterback completed 127 of 219 passes (58 percent) for 2,379 yards and 31 touchdowns with 10 interceptions; ran 137 times for 1,238 yards and 17 scores. Led the Falcons (10-3) to their best season in school history and a third-round appearance in the 4A playoffs. Is also the defending 4A champ in the 300 hurdles.
RB/LB: Xzavior Bowden, Goldsboro (Jr., 6-2, 225)
The two-way star was a big reason for Goldsboro’s improved season, and did so playing in the state’s toughest 2A conference (the top two teams both played for state titles). On offense, he ran for 2,105 yards and 27 touchdowns (8.0 per carry). As a linebacker on defense, he made 97 tackles – two for loss. The Cougars went 6-6 and made the 2A playoffs one year after going 1-10. Has an invite to the U.S. Army All-American combine.
RB: Tyson Dew, Cleveland (Jr., 5-11, 185)
The Greater Neuse River Conference player of the year ran for 2,139 yards – ranking 12th in the state – on 304 carries (7.0 per carry) for 28 touchdowns. Dashed for 12 100-yard games in a 13-game season, helping the Rams to the second round of the 3AA playoffs. Also caught 24 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns.
RB: Zonovan Knight, Southern Nash (Jr., 6-0, 185)
The Big East 3A Conference offensive player of the year ran for 1,877 yards on just 142 carries (13.2 average) for 27 touchdowns. Has several ACC offers. Caught three passes for 20 yards and returned seven kickoffs for an average of 34.3 yards, including one touchdown.
RB: Devon Lawrence, Wake Forest (Sr., 5-11, 190)
UNC recruit was voted the Northern Athletic Conference player of the year and the MVP of the 4AA state championship game. Ran for 1,485 yards on 186 carries (8.0 average) and 30 touchdown. Caught 18 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Also returned one kickoff for an 87-yard touchdown (he only returned three all year) and threw one pass for 27 yards.
RB/S: Trent Pennix, Sanderson (Sr., 6-3, 210)
N.C. State recruit ran for 1,247 yards on 201 carries (6.2 average) for 16 touchdowns and caught 34 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns. In limited snaps on defense, he had 15 tackles and two interceptions with three passes knocked down. Also returned nine kickoffs for a 22.0 average.
RB: Ricky Person Jr., Heritage (Sr., 6-2, 210)
N.C. State recruit ran for 2,230 yards and 38 touchdowns (8.5 per carry) and also caught 21 passes and 279 yards for three touchdowns. Was co-offensive player of the year in the Northern Athletic Conference. Was the Offensive MVP of the Shrine Bowl and is a U.S. Army All-American. Added eight tackles and one sack and one fumble recovery on defense.
RB: Jahmir Smith, Lee County (Sr., 5-11, 203)
Notre Dame recruit ran for 1,724 yards and 27 touchdowns and only played in 33 quarters out of a possible 52 due as the Yellow Jackets blew out most teams. Tri-County 6 Conference offensive player of the year. Was an AP all-state pick as a junior and is a two-time N&O All-Metro selection.
WR: Jordyn Adams, Green Hope (Sr., 6-3, 180)
UNC recruit returned five kicks for touchdown this year, including three punts in the same game to tie the NCHSAA record. Also had 1,060 yards receiving on 55 catches for 12 touchdowns. Is an AP all-state selection as a kick returner, a Shrine Bowl pick, a U.S. Army All-American in football and baseball and made the N&O All-Metro baseball team last spring.
WR: Devin Carter, Clayton (Sr., 6-4, 205)
N.C. State recruit caught 55 passes for 1,060 yards and 17 touchdowns while leading the Comets to a 13-1 record and the third round of the 3AA playoffs. Also completed one pass for nine yards and ran 13 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Shrine Bowl selection.
WR: C.J. Johnson, D.H. Conley (Jr., 6-2, 205)
Led the state in receiving yardage (1,547 on just 68 catches) and touchdowns (31) to help the Vikings to the second round of the 3AA playoffs. It was the second-most receiving touchdowns in a season in NCHSAA history and he stands at fourth all-time entering his senior year.
OL/DL: Calvin Atkeson, Ravenscroft (Sr., 6-5, 305)
Had offers from ACC schools but chose to play in the Ivy League at Dartmouth. Head coach Ned Gonet, who has coached the Ravens for 37 years, calls Atkeson the “most talented offensive and defensive lineman I have experienced.” Two-time NCISAA all-state selection and the defending NCISAA heavyweight wrestling champion. Made 41 tackles on defense with four for loss.
OL: Donovan Noel, Millbrook (Sr., 6-4, 260)
East Carolina recruit graded for the season at better than 80 percent. Shrine Bowl selection.
OL: Peyton Winstead, Leesville Road (Sr., 6-3, 290)
The state's top-rated center excelled at left tackle for the Pride. The East Carolina recruit was a Shrine Bowl and AP all-state selection.
DL: Joseph Bolotepeli, Heritage (Sr., 6-5, 245)
N.C. State recruit made 62 tackles with 4.5 sacks and had two interceptions with two fumble recoveries.
DL: Jalen Brooks, Cardinal Gibbons (Jr., 6-1, 220)
Made 74 tackles – 27.5 for loss – with 24 sacks (third most in the state) for the 11-1 Crusaders and was named Cap-7 Conference defensive player of the year. Was also a 4A wrestling runner-up as a sophomore.
DL: Savion Jackson, Clayton (Jr., 6-2, 250)
Made 56 tackles – 20 for loss – with eight sacks and one blocked punt and one fumble forced. Was voted Greater Neuse River Conference defensive player of the year. Ranked one of the top junior recruits in the nation.
DL: Joe Kane, Heritage (Sr., 6-3, 275)
Virginia Tech recruit made 57 tackles with 5.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble forced. Two-time N&O All-Metro pick.
DL: Jaden McKenzie, Wake Forest (Jr., 6-3, 275)
Made 97 tackles – 23 for loss – and nine sacks for the 4AA champs. Drawing recruiting interest from ACC teams.
LB: Keaton Forbes, Lee County (Sr., 6-0, 210)
Made 100 tackles – 32 for loss – and five sacks, one interception, five fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles for the 12-1 Yellow Jackets. Lee County shut out nine teams this year and allowed just 4.7 points per game. Forbes was also his team’s long snapper and had no errant snaps all season.
LB/FB: Alim McNeill, Sanderson (Sr., 6-2, 272)
N.C. State recruit made 60 tackles – 18 for loss – with five sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception and a safety. Also ran 20 times for 163 yards (8.2 per carry) and eight touchdowns. Was named Cap-7 Conference player of the year and U.S. Army All-American.
LB/RB: Allajah Mitchell, South Granville (Sr., 6-1, 225)
Had a whopping 39.5 tackles for loss (100 total tackles) at linebacker with 12 sacks and one interception for touchdown. On offense, he ran for 1,765 yards and 28 touchdowns (15.3 per carry) for the 13-1 Vikings. Helped the team to its best season in school history and a third-round appearance in the 2AA playoffs as well as the Northern Carolina 1A/2A Conference title. Also threw one pass on the year, and it went for a 38-yard touchdown. Caught seven passes for 65 yards.
LB/FB: Paul Robinson, Green Hope (Sr., 6-0, 225)
Made 200 tackles – 10 for loss – with three sacks, one fumble caused and one blocked field goal. Also ran 22 times for 74 yards and seven touchdowns.
LB/RB: Drake Thomas, Heritage (Jr., 6-1, 230)
Made 112 tackles with three interceptions and three forced fumbles. On offense, he ran 30 times for 287 yards (9.6 per carry) and three touchdowns and caught five passes for 35 yards and one touchdown. Has high-level recruiting interest.
LB: Josiah Trotter, Franklinton (Sr., 6-2, 220)
Made 162 tackles – 30 for loss – with two interceptions, two forced fumbles, one recovered fumble and blocked a punt and a field goal. Caught nine passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
LB: Seth Williams, Wake Forest (Sr. 6-2, 220)
Leading tackler for the 4AA champs (147 tackles, 16.5 for loss) with three sacks, one interception, one forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries (two for touchdown). He also blocked a punt and knocked down 11 passes.
LB: Phillip Willoughby, Tarboro (Sr., 6-1, 215)
Made 144 tackles and 25.5 tackles for loss for the 1AA champs. Forced five fumbles, picked off one pass and had three sacks.
LB/ATH: Payton Wilson, Orange (Sr., 6-4, 225)
N.C. State recruit made 103 tackles – 21 for loss – and 10 sacks in just eight games. Returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble. Started the year at wide receiver on offense, but moved to quarterback after the Panthers suffered injuries. Ran for 222 yards and five touchdowns, caught 15 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns, completed 13 of 27 passes for 125 yards and no touchdowns. Was also his team’s top punt returner and voted Big Eight Conference player of the year. A Shrine Bowl pick, U.S. Army All-American and two-time N&O All-Metro selection in football. Also made the N&O All-Metro team in wrestling and was the 3A state champ last winter and was the 2016-17 N&O male athlete of the year.
DB/WR: Cornell Hendrick, Warren County (Sr., 6-2, 150)
Old Dominion wide receiver recruit made nine interceptions and returned two for touchdown while making 49 tackles. Led the Eagles to a 7-4 mark, the best regular season in school history since 1998. On offense, he caught 53 passes for 775 yards and seven touchdowns and ran 29 times for 246 yards (8.5 per carry) and four touchdowns. Also completed one pass for 10 yards.
DB/WR: John Jiles, Wake Forest (Sr., 6-4, 205)
Made 78 tackles – 10 for loss – with two interceptions (one returned for touchdown), knocked down seven passes, forced four fumbles, blocked three punts and one field goal for the 4AA champs. Also added one punt return for touchdown and caught 20 passes for 496 yards (six touchdowns). Voted offensive MVP of the title game. Was a Shrine Bowl pick.
DB: Javon Terry, Wake Forest (Sr., 6-2, 195)
UNC recruit made 42 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five interceptions and knocked down 19 passes for the 4AA champs. Had 138 yards of interception returns and one safety. Was voted the defensive MVP of the title game. Also caught one pass for 27 yards. Made the AP all-state team and was a Shrine Bowl pick.
DB/QB: Isaiah Thomas, Rocky Mount Academy (Jr., 6-1, 190)
Led the NCISAA 8-man football state champions on both sides of the ball. Completed 69 of 95 passes (72.6 percent) for 1,643 yards and 21 touchdowns with four interceptions. Ran 74 times for 659 yards and 16 touchdowns (8.9 per carry). On defense, he made 46.5 tackles with 11 interceptions (two returned for touchdown; 222 interception return yardage) and two forced fumbles with one fumble recovery. Was 9 of 13 on 2-point conversions.
DB/WR: Nate Thompson, Southern Lee (Sr., 6-2, 186)
Duke recruit made 58 tackles – four for loss – with three sacks and four interceptions. On offense, he caught 50 passes for 573 yards and four touchdowns. Scored five different ways – rushing (one), receiving (four), interception return (one), fumble return (one) and kickoff return (one).