Sunday, October 6, 2013

EPC football could have much drama ... or not

As conference skirmishes in the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference football season begin Friday, the only surprise thus far has to be Farmville Central with a 5-0 mark. The Jaguars, with just four wins the past three seasons, were picked to finish fifth by EPC coaches in their preseason poll. And Farmville Central  might still just do that.

As for the other five EPC teams, they are about where the consensus held they should be after seven weeks. Beddingfield is 3-3 because, despite playing extremely well at times, has shot itself in the foot at other times. SouthWest Edgecombe, also 3-3, is in the same boat. Both the Bruins and Cougars have lost to some pretty good teams. The teams that have beaten Beddingfield (Southern Nash, Fike, Southern Pines Pinecrest) are a combined 18-0 and the Bruins have lost those three games by a combined 28 points.

SouthWest has lost to Southern Nash, Rocky Mount and Tarboro, which are a combined 15-3, by a total of 29 points.

It's interesting to note that Beddingfield and SouthWest tied for third in the preseason coaches poll behind favorite North Pitt and Washington. The Panthers (5-1) and Pam Pack (4-2) have shown themselves to be the top two teams in the EPC. SouthWest will have first crack at changing that dynamic Friday when the Cougars visit North Pitt.

For Beddingfield, it's about continuing the momentum from its 15-13 win at home against Hunt, the Bruins' first victory over the Warriors since a 14-13 verdict at Beddingfield in 2009. It was the second straight win for Beddingfield, which opens at winless North Johnston on Friday.

The Bruins made the fewest errors and got the win over Hunt. That's what they need to keep doing, as well as stay healthy, because Beddingfield has the most dangerous offensive weapons in the EPC with junior QB Kavajae Ellis, receivers Javius Nixon and Ajay Williams and running backs Kelvin King and Chavius Collins. King and Collins, both starting defenders, were injured and didn't finish the game against Hunt.

Beddingfield can give any team it faces fits but the Bruins also can give their head coach, Tyrone Johnson, fits. If they don't suffer any crushing injuries (and it's not known when or if King or Collins will return), they can continue to be a handful for their opponents.

SouthWest has also dealt with injuries, namely to junior halfback Devontrell Hyman, who has accumulated 511 yards on just 55 carries (9.3 average). Hyman returned to rush for 60 yards in the Cougars' 49-7 pasting of host East Carteret on Friday and if he resumes his early season form, SouthWest's offense will have its feature back. With junior Barry Smith and sophomore Marcus Williams complementing Hyman's bruising, straight-ahead style, the Cougars can keep doing what they did Friday when they piled up 450 yards on 44 rushes. SWE threw just one pass, an incompletion, because it didn't need to pass.

First-year head coach Jonathan Cobb, who has introduced some wrinkles to the wishbone attack favored by his predecessor, his father, Raymond Cobb, reverted to straight wishbone Friday. I realize East Carteret probably was ill-equipped to handle that ground-based onslaught but it might be worth taking a look at keeping the offense as streamlined as possible. The EPC is a power-rushing conference, even with teams like Beddingfield, Washington and North Johnston favoring the pass. If you have the ability to pound out yards, do it, SouthWest.

North Johnston is a pretty good 0-6 team, for whatever that's worth, but that plaudit won't make head coach Scott Meserve sleep better. The Panthers probably aren't going to win a game this season because they don't stack up well against their EPC foes in their first year in the conference. But North Johnston has some playmakers in senior wideout Trey Daniels and senior QB Montie Walker, along with RB Quamel Kenion. The Panthers also have size on their lines and, if they play better on special teams, limit their turnovers (an area-worst minus-10 in ratio) and curtail debilitating penalties, maybe they'll surprise someone.

I'm going out on a limb and sticking with the coaches in their preseason poll. North Pitt should win and Washington will finish second. The most interesting game of the season is probably the week 12 battle between Beddingfield and SouthWest in Pinetops that should decide third place. Of course, if the Bruins or Cougars can surprise either North Pitt or Washington, they could get at least a share of the title.

And of course, nobody better sleep on Farmville Central.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Big East as hard to call now as in preseason

It's hard to believe that we are seven weeks into the high school football season, especially with the temperature hovering near 90 degrees in the first week in October, but now we have just five very important weeks to go.

As the three Wilson County teams prepare for their conference openers Friday — Fike and Hunt in the 3-A Big East and Beddingfield in the 2-A Eastern Plains — it's time to look back and ahead.

Starting with the Big East, which has the only two area teams with perfect records in Fike and Southern Nash. And wouldn't you know, the Golden Demons and Firebirds are on a collision course this week in Fike's Buddy Bedgood Stadium on Tyson Jennette Field. A perfect way to start the conference run!

First off, Fike is the big "surprise" of the year with a 6-0 mark after winning just two games last year and six the last two years combined. But the Demons are no mirage as their potent offense is averaging nearly 400 yards per game. Most of that production has come from speedy, elusive junior Anthony Evans (905 yards, 9 TDs) and bruising, powerful sophomore A.J. Hines (512 yards, 10 TDs). Of course, Fike has had solid blocking and sophomore QB D.J. Daniels (37 for 55, 570 yards, 8 TDs, 1 INT) has been steady.

Defensively, the Demons done the job as well, posting two shutouts. But Fike is allowing 159 yards per game through the air, compared to just 100 on the ground. That's one indicator that pass defense is where Fike has struggled — at times. Witness the numbers put up by spread foes Kinston, Beddingfield and South Johnston, albeit all during late comeback attempts. That also shows that Fike has been most vulnerable defensively through the air.

The good news for the Demons is that none of their Big East opponents rely mostly on the pass. Certainly not the Firebirds, who have dealt with what should be crippling injuries to their offensive backfield this season.

Southern Nash has lost the services of five halfbacks who could be the featured ball carriers for many offenses. Yet, the Firebirds continue to motor along, doing just enough each week to get the win. And that comes with a minus-7 turnover ratio that would keep most teams below .500.

However, bad habits and bad luck will catch up with a team in time and Southern Nash will have to get healthy in the backfield. The good news from Friday's 24-23 win at Tarboro, probably its most impressive victory this season, is that junior Zimonia Knight played for the first time all season. Knight, who suffered a calf injury in the preseason jamboree, had just 2 yards on two carries and is not 100 percent but at this point, Firebirds head coach Brian Foster will take what he can get. Grant Jones (ACL) and promising sophomore Jaquay Mitchell (knee) are done for the season while junior Clinton Whitaker and senior Taylor Finch are battling injuries.

It's a good thing Southern Nash has Richard Hall, one of the top candidates for Big East player of the year, to pick up the slack. Hall, primarily a slotback on offense and the top defensive back, has 450 yards in spot duty at halfback.

Hunt, the Big East coaches' preseason pick to win its fifth conference title, has been the hardest team to get a bead on. The Warriors, under first-year head coach Stevie Hinnant, have at times dazzled and other times sputtered. There have been underlying reasons for the latter, such as injuries and a tough schedule, but the simple fact is that the Warriors haven't been 3-3 since 2009. But Hunt ended up 9-4 and went 5-0 in the Big East, winning the first of four straight conference championships.

So, what will the Warriors do this time? That answer might come in the form of who will lead them on offense. Sophomore Jacob Williamson started at quarterback for the first six games but in the Warriors' 15-13 loss at Beddingfield in their last game,  he was replaced by junior Justin Jefferson, who had never played the position in two-plus varsity seasons. Jefferson, a starting cornerback and receiver, was somewhat effective in moving the offense so he might be part of the plan going forward.

But what Hunt does have, like Fike with Evans and Hines, is a pair of game-breakers in senior Dexter Wright (655 yards) and sophomore Darius Barnes (573 yards). Wright is also the leader of the Hunt defense, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound free safety with sub-4.4 speed who has verbally committed to N.C. State.

Right now, Hunt needs to find some consistency on offense, work towards getting Barnes and Wright the ball as much as possible and pull together and realize the season is far from over. The frustration of three losses in six games is evident for players who suffered just two losses over the past two seasons, both coming to eventual state 3-AA champion Northern Guilford in the Eastern championship game.

The Warriors will begin Big East play in the most anticipated matchup perhaps in program history Friday night when they venture to Northern Nash's "Death Valley." The Knights have won three straight after an 0-3 start but that's not why this game is so big. It's the first time Randy Raper will be standing on the other side of the field for Hunt. Raper, of course, left Hunt after 22 seasons and 203 wins last December for a new challenge at Northern. He'll have it Friday night.

With Rocky Mount looming as a potential Big East champion and Nash Central, despite being winless, possessing the capability of beating anyone on any given night, what do I think will happen in the Big East? I think nobody will go unbeaten and there's a good chance five teams will make the playoffs. How's that?