Published 12:00 am Friday, September 6, 2013

KANNAPOLIS — Everyone agrees on one point about A.L. Brown’s 2012 defense — that it wasn’t good.
The Wonders had brilliant offensive performers led by Kalif Phillips, but they regressed defensively after shutting out Shelby opening night. They allowed a school-record 63 points in a loss to Hickory Ridge and they allowed 55 more when they beat Hickory Ridge in a scoreboard-exploding rematch.
For the Wonders to have to win a wild playoff game 69-55 is almost unfathomable, and the bottom line at the end of a 10-4 season was 386 points allowed.
The Wonders usually play 13 or 14 games and normally allow in the neighborhood of 240 points. The last time their defense was really stout — 2007 — they allowed 180.
The Wonders (1-1) aren’t as explosive offensively as they were in 2012, so surviving in 4A with teams such as Mallard Creek and Hough as conference foes, depends on how much the defense can tighten up.
The key to that defense is a 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior middle linebacker named Kyrell Williamson.
“Our defense will go as Kyrell goes,” linebackers coach Orlando Gray said. “He’s an awesome kid. He makes the calls. He’s the guy that gets everyone else in the right places. He’s such a smart kid, in the classroom and on the field, that it’s almost like having another coach. I don’t know that I’ve ever coached anyone who is a student of the game like he is.”
Scanning the Wonders’ roster, there are few familiar faces on the defensive unit. There’s Williamson, who worked his way into the starting lineup last season and made the All-SPC team, there’s safety Kenon Jones and there’s defensive lineman Kendall Holmes, and that’s about it, alhough star receiver Johnny Delahoussaey also can play cornerback.
Williamson was voted a team captain, but even before that, he was leading all summer.
“We put in a lot of work in the offseason, and then lots of long practice days,” Williamson said. “We put in the effort to get better. If we wanted to be better than last year, we had to get stronger and faster.”
In the Wonders’ 41-6 win against South Rowan last Friday, Williamson was stout.
“I don’t know that there was any specific play that stood out in the South game, but Kyrell was all over the field all night,” head coach Mike Newsome said. “He’s a guy you definitely notice. He’s just one of those tough, hard-nosed kids, a typical Wonder kind of player.”
Gray saw last season that Williamson was starting to get it, and he’s vastly improved since then.
“He’s done some real work, not just with the team but also outside of practice,” Gray said. “His footwork has improved tremendously. I’ve been pretty hard on him, but he’s one of those kids you can coach. He takes tough coaching and learns from it.”
Williamson can feel the difference in his play from his junior year, and he can also see it on film.
“My lateral movement is better, my speed getting downhill is better, and I’m getting deeper on my drops,” he said. “I think we’ve just gotten better as a whole defense. The defense line is getting more push than last year, and that opens up things for the linebackers.”
Williamson didn’t think he did anything special against South, but he admits he had a solid night.
“I stopped a few plays in the hole, but mostly I was just forcing the running back (Derrick Blackwell) to cut back to my weakside linebacker,” Williamson said. “We all made some plays.”
Like the other defensive coaches, Gray is knocking on wood. He’s optimistic the Wonders can get the points-allowed numbers that veered out of control in 2012 back to an acceptable level.
“We had some good kids, but we didn’t have the kind of defense we wanted to have last season,” Gray said. “We do believe we’re better now, and Kyrell is a key to that. It’s not in my hands, but I believe he’s a Shrine Bowl kind of player. He’s a player who should get an opportunity at the next level.”
Williamson will get plenty of chances to make plays tonight. The Wonders host Weddington (2-0), a team with a prolific passing game.
It will be a challenge and they be underdogs, even at home, but challenge is what the Wonders thrive on.
“Our schedule is tough, but as a Kannapolis native and Kannapolis alum, I can tell you we’ve never run from anybody and we never will,” Gray said.