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?

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