Prep Football Preseason: Optimistic East returns 15 starters

Published 10:52 pm Thursday, August 10, 2017

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY —  John Fitz went from defensive coordinator to interim coach to official head coach in a whirlwind last spring.

That swift promotion granted Fitz sufficient time to make tweaks to the East Rowan program.

“Being named head coach in April was a big advantage as far as working toward this season,” Fitz said.

Fitz is following Kenneth McClamrock, who piloted the Mustangs for three seasons. East was 4-8 in 2016, winning against four schools that were struggling more than the Mustangs — Salisbury, Cox Mill, Northwest Cabarrus and South Rowan. East will play a non-conference game at Central Cabarrus, McClamrock’s new school, on Sept. 8.

Fitz is not a typical first-year head coach. Besides high school head coaching experience at Wilmington New Hanover and Concord Jay M. Robinson, he spent a dozen years as a defensive coordinator at Oxford’s J.F. Webb High, plus seven seasons as a key assistant at Catawba College during Chip Hester’s coaching tenure.

Fitz has coached in college playoff games, so he arguably knows as much about defensive and special teams X’s and O’s as anyone in the high school ranks.

East will keep doing what it’s been doing defensively. Fitz will still focus most of his time on that side of the ball.

The Mustangs are making changes on offense. They’ll be employing a triple option attack out of the shotgun, an exciting attack that Wofford College has experienced great success with. Brett Hatley, a former Catawba baseball player and a wide receiver in his football playing days at West Rowan, is Fitz’s offensive coordinator and will tutor the quarterbacks.

New members of a revised coaching staff include Mark Lambert (inside linebackers), former Davie County star James Mayfield (receivers), Eric Watkins, who has coached a lot of Mustangs in YFL, and former Mount Pleasant coach Randy Kaiser (defensive line). Nate Santigo returns as offensive line coach. Former Catawba receiver Shawn Galloway is back and is coaching DBs.

Chase Burris, a key part of East’s staff in recent seasons, got married two weeks ago and is completing some academic work for a lateral entry teaching position, so he’s taking a year off from coaching. Fitz expects him back in 2018.

Fitz said 77 Mustangs have been practicing.

“That’s up for us since I’ve been here,  a pretty good number,” Fitz said.

One of those 77 is Fitz’s son, Jax, a junior who will be a backup QB, receiver and cornerback.

While East has an impressive number of returning starters (15 in all, eight on defense), Fitz said that number is a bit misleading.

“I say that because three  guys that we lost (Max Wall, Wesley Porter, Steven Hardin) were involved in just about everything we did,” Fitz said. “They were a big part of offense, defense and special teams.”

While he’s still only a junior, Fitz said the team’s leader will be inside linebacker Christian Bennett, a starter since he was a freshman and a first-team all-county player as a sophomore.

“He’s a leader in every way you can imagine,” Fitz said. “Just a leader-type kid.”

Other defensive leaders in the preseason have been defensive end Coy Ketchie, cornerback Mustafa Davis, inside linebacker T.J. Drew and safety Noah Green.

East’s offense can count on two juniors for points — QB Justin Smith (66 completions, 954 passing yards, 12 TDs) and receiver Sam Wall  (27 receptions, 412 yards, 5 TDs). Fitch also has high hopes for an offensive line that includes potential standouts Cole McGraw, Hunter Eagle and Lucas Hedrick. Offensive tackle Dylan Goodnight is the team’s most improved player.

“He’s one of the kids that got in the weight room and worked,” Fitz said. “He’s gotten bigger and he’s gotten better.”

East scrimmaged on Wednesday at Cox Mill, taking on Union Academy and Lake Norman Charter, as well as the host Chargers.

“We started out rough offensively, playing against a defensive formation that we hadn’t practiced against,” Fitz said. “But we finished the night pretty well.”

A half-dozen Mustangs who are expected to play a lot didn’t have the necessary number of practice days in yet and weren’t eligible for the scrimmage.

Fitz had a chance to scout North Stanly’s scrimmage on Thursday. East won’t have another scrimmage before it starts the season for real next Friday at North Stanly.

“Right now, as much as we have to learn on offense, we needed that extra practice day more than another scrimmage,” Fitz said. “We need to see us versus us in situations the coaches can control.”

East is in a new league that’s actually an old league for the Mustangs — the North Piedmont Conference. East, West Rowan and Carson will be taking on always athletic Statesville, a South Iredell team that boasts a Division I prospect (Charlotte) in QB Brady Pope, and a North Iredell program that has struggled more often than not over the years.

East’s non-conference schedule is challenging, but not overwhelming. There are a number of winnable games. East still will be playing old rivals such as South Rowan and Northwest Cabarrus that are trying to rebuild after tough times. The most talented team East faces outside of the NPC may be McClamrock’s Central Cabarrus squad.

In other words, it’s nice not having Concord, Robinson and Hickory Ridge on the schedule.

“We’re going to be playing a lot of very good teams,” Fitz said. “But is the schedule as tough as the one we played in the South Piedmont Conference? No, it’s not.”