When East Chapel Hill says it is rebuilding its football program, the Wildcats mean it in a fundamantally serious way.
East basically had no football team when the 2014 season ended.
Decimated by injuries and defections to other sports, and down to 14 players in the final week of practice, the Wildcats were forced to forfeit a game for the third time in four weeks.
East Chapel Hill isn’t just starting to rebuild from the cellar of the PAC-6 Conference; the Wildcats are laying a new foundation.
“Absolutely. We’re starting over,” first-year coach Ryan Johnson said as he readied for the first week of full-contact practices. “It’s encouraging to see the way the players have handled last year. They know it’s history. It’s behind them.”
Johnson is East’s fourth coach in four years. Jon Sherman (2013) and Mike Holderman (2014) each coached one season after the departure of former NFL player and veteran coach Bill Renner (2010-12).
Renner, father of former North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner, brought a cachet and an explosive offense to East Chapel Hill. He helped quarterback Drew Davis, son of former UNC coach Butch Davis, who set a NCHSAA record for pass completions in a game, and brought three consecutive years of increasing wins to East before he retired as a teacher.
Failing to match Renner’s success, Sherman and Holderman each stepped down late in successive school years, and the school scrambled to maintain offseason workouts.
Johnson, defensive coordinator for last year’s Wildcats (0-11, 0-5), effectively took over in early July and has been struck with the enthusiasm of the players. Virtually every letterman returned.
“Really, we’re missing just one or two players who were starters last year,” Johnson said. “What’s surprising is everybody’s mental state. Everyone is really paying attention to detail.”
One of most important among those returning will be rising junior quarterback Brater Gerber, who managed to maintain his poise as last season’s games disintegrated. The return of rising sophomore running back Amier Alston, who transferred for a semester to Eastern Alamance, provides a foundation for Johnson’s flexbone offense.
What East needs most is some more beef.
“Most of our line started as freshmen,” Johnson noted. “They went through the fire. If we can create some depth so that they don’t have to be on the field every play, we have a good chance to be competitive this year.”
Contributors: QB Brater Gerber; RB/DB Amier Alston; RB/FS Jordan Sanders; ILB Koby Andrade; OC Camilo Hernandez; WR/MLB Roman Mantis; WR/DB Demarcus Smith; WR/DB Jackson Stone; WR/DB Max Alway-Townsend; WR/DB Derek Mahone.
Will miss most: WR D.J. Recny.
Expected team strength: Core of returners. The survivors from 2014 who returned have displayed commitment and character, says Johnson.
Question mark: Depth on the lines. East Chapel Hill has some talent, but needs more players, period.
The number: 40 – number of players who showed up for summer drills, higher than average for the program.
Quotable: Johnson: “The guys know last year is behind them. They’re not second-guessing themselves. They’re focused on now.”
Game to watch: Aug. 21 at Northern Vance. The Vikings (2-9), which snapped a 24-game losing streak last year, have struggled much like the Wildcats. How East Chapel Hill fares against such a similar opponent will say a lot about how fast Ryan Johnson has gotten his system implemented.
Last Five Years
2014: 0-11 (0-5)
2013: 3-8 (2-3)
2012: 5-6 (3-3), 4A first round
2011: 3-8 (3-3)
2010: 1-10 (0-6)