2012 Football: Carson preview
By David Shaw
CHINA GROVE — The disappointment and frustration of missing last year’s playoffs wasn’t missed on Mark Woody’s face.
Carson’s seventh-year coach remembers walking off the field following a too-late-to-matter, season-ending victory over North Iredell wearing a bittersweet smile.
“As coaches, we know how close we were to being a nine-win team,” Woody said. “We were very close. I’m not one to make a lot of excuses, but we had a lot of adversity last year. People don’t know it because we don’t talk about it. But in the first game, we lost all of our running backs. We lost our starting tailback on the opening kickoff.”
It’s hard to say whether the 2011 Cougars were doomed or jinxed or just plain unlucky, but a predicable season unfolded. They never won two games in succession, went 4-7 overall and 3-3 in the rugged NPC. Three times they lost games by six points and dropped another by nine.
“Last year we took care of all the big things,” said quarterback Austin McNeill. “But the little things did us in. We weren’t very good at finishing games. If we were, we could have been 8-3.”
Nine wins? Eight-and-three? Those were high expectations.
“With the talent we had coming back we should have done a whole lot better,” senior wideout K.J. Pressley surmised. “We didn’t.”
On paper the 2012 Cougars are legitimate postseason contenders. They’ll bump fists with perennial favorite West Rowan and nemesis Statesville in the conference standings. Where the rest of the journey takes them is a story only November knows.
“This is the year for Carson to get their first everything,” crowed all-conference defensive end Myquon Stout. “Instead of being just Carson, everybody will know we’re not here to play around.”
Stout isn’t simply boasting like a rooster. Carson returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense. All of its skill players — McNeill, running back Brandon Sloop and receivers Ben Gragg and Pressley — are back on board. So is a ferocious defensive line that clearly wasn’t designed for the gentle cycle.
McNeill will be the trigger to Carson’s Multiple-I offense. A junior who passed for 1,239 yards and tossed an NPC-best 15 touchdown passes last season, more is expected this year. He was named all-conference.
“Austin’s an old-school kid with a work ethic second to nobody,” Woody said. “On the field he’s gotten stronger and knows this offense.”
Sloop, an undersized tailback who made a splash as a freshman last autumn (956 yards rushing, seven touchdowns, five 100-yard games), is now a 185-pound workhorse.
“We didn’t want to play him as a ninth-grader,” Woody said. “But we were forced to bring him up. Looking back, it was all worth it. You hand him the ball and he gets you yards.”
Joining Sloop in the backfield will be sophomore tailback Daren Isom (6-2, 210) and stocky junior fullback Tommy Dang (5-4, 195). They’ll operate behind an offensive line that stands out for all the wrong reasons.
“We lost two big linemen — (Daniel) Rodriquez and (Mitch) Galloway,” Woody explained. “And those are two big losses. We all know how important the offensive line is. For us to be successful they’ve got to mature quickly.”
One of those is right guard Bailey Mauldin (5-11, 225), a junior who played JV ball a year ago. “It’s his first year of varsity football,” said Woody. “But he’s been in the weight room since ninth grade and he believes in the Kool-Aid. He’s taken a drink and bought in.”
The left guard spot is still up for grabs, with junior Cody Rodriguez (6-0, 235) and senior Trei Cunningham (5-7, 235) vying for the sash. The tackles include senior Devon Peacock (6-3, 245) — last year’s starting center until a kneecap injury shelved him — and T.J. Bell (6-2, 190), a former tight end.
Anchoring the line is junior center Henry Brown (6-0, 190), another jayvee callup with quick feet. The tight end is sure-handed senior Greg Tonnesen (6-2, 190), who doubles as a reliable receiver.
Pressley (6-3, 170) will be McNeill’s go-to target. Now a third-year lettermen, he made 39 receptions for 757 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He logged 100-yard receiving games against J.M. Robinson, West Iredell and North Iredell.
Gragg (6-0, 170) lines up on the opposite side. A part-time receiver last fall, he runs like a Maserati on a European freeway.
“This kid is fast,” Woody said. “Not deceptively fast. Just fast. He can run and he can catch.”
Woody says Carson’s offensive strategy will be a simple one.
“We’re going to run the ball hard and throw it deep,” he said.
The defensive headlines from CHS camp are all numbers. After using a 4-3 scheme for six years, the Cougars are switching to a 3-4, chiefly based on personnel.
“Because we’ve got three up front that can flat-out play,” Woody barked when questioned.
It starts with senior nose guard C.J. Cain (6-4, 297), who will line up over the center. Woody says he “plays like a bear,” and college recruiters have noticed. For now he’s concentrating on winning games for Carson.
“We have the talent and people in the right places,” he said. “The coaches can only do so much. We’ve got to take responsibility for the rest of it.”
Stout (6-2, 245) and Alex Lyles (6-5, 235) are the defensive ends. Stout was named all-conference as a soph in 2011.
Lyles is a sophomore with a high ceiling and a mean disposition. First off the bench is Tony Dang (5-6, 225), Tommy’s twin brother.
Carson’s linebacking corps is a four-pronged unit that sweeps from sideline-to-sideline and can play chest-to-chest defense. The inside ‘backers are juniors Tre Williams (5-10, 190) and Kaz Ivanov (5-10, 215), a couple of read-and-react defenders.
Williams will call signals and ensure proper alignments. Ivanov is the team’s designated hitter.
“If it moves, he hits it,” Woody reported. “That fits right in with what we’re doing.”
At OLB are sure-tackler Patrick Ratliff (6-0, 204, 3 fumble recoveries) and Rameiq Howard (6-2, 205). Carsons’s secondary features cornerbacks D.J. Love and Tyreese Paul. The safeties are juniors Will Zentmeyer and Jake Martin.
Woody expects senior soccer player B.J. Collins (17 extra-points, 1 FG) to be his kicker and will hand the punting duties to Tonnesen or Gragg. Pressley and Gragg are penciled in as kick returners. Woody also will find a way to work sophomore Anthony McCurry (5-10, 200) into the mix.
A junior varsity linebacker last year, McCurry will be the backup quarterback.
“You may see him making a tackle or throwing a pass,” Woody said.
Everyone is talking butterflies and rainbows this time of year, but Carson truly is an improved team. Woody has a group that can’t be ignored.
For now he’ll simply throw it all in the blender for the next 11 weeks and see what pours out.
“If we take care of the little things, we’ll be fine this year,” McNeill concluded. “We’re not an all-star team — you don’t have to be — but if everybody does their share, we’ll win games on Fridays.”