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Solid core returns as North Rowan heads back into the YVC

By David Shaw

sports@salisburypost.com

SPENCER — The future can’t arrive soon enough at North Rowan.

One year after winning 11 games, capturing the Central Carolina Conference championship and swirling into the third round of the 2A state playoffs, the restocked Cavs are back on the clock. They return to the 1A Yadkin Valley Conference — the home they vacated after the 2012 season — with swords held high.

“We’re excited,” said third-year coach Ben Hampton. “But this is a much different conference than it was four years ago. We’re not really sure what to expect, so all we can do is take care of ourselves. We’ll be prepared every week.”

That might spell trouble for North’s 11 opponents. With 14 returning players, including marquee running back Jaleel Webster, expect the Cavaliers to contend for another title.

“We’re in the same situation we were in last year,” said Webster, Rowan’s leading rusher with 1,466 yards in 2016. “There are question marks, but if everybody does what they’re supposed to do, we can go just as far. Maybe farther.”

That begins with Webster (5-6, 160), an undersized senior who filleted opposing defenses like pieces of salmon. If you liked what he did last year, you’re going to love him this season.

“He came to us as a freshman and sat behind several other running backs,” said Hampton. “In the summer between his sophomore and junior years he decided he was tired of playing second fiddle. He basically said the proof is in the pudding — and went out and outworked everybody.”

Webster’s reward was inclusion on the all-conference and all-county teams. He’ll be joined in North’s backfield by Malcolm Wilson (5-9, 185), a sophomore built like former star Jareke Chambers. “He’s not flashy,” said Hampton. “He just puts his shoulders down and gets upfield. He and Webster will be on the field at all times.”

The offensive line features center Will Anthony (6-3, 250) and left tackle Bryson Deal (6-2, 220), a couple of seniors who open holes wide enough to drive the team bus through. Anthony — all-CCC and all-county last season — is all-business, all-the-time. He knows every call and acts as a coach-on-the-field. Deal, a quick-footed returning starter, routinely beats larger defenders.

Receivers Denario Robinson (6-3, 200) and Quintous Smith (6-2, 200) are underclassmen with Downy-soft hands. Both can catch, block and run, which bodes well for the Cavs’ next quarterback.

“Yeah, but that’s a weakness right now,” Hampton said. “We have uncertainty at quarterback. It’s been a battle all spring and summer. We’re still waiting for someone to step up and take the reins.”

Replacing the graduated Corbin Smith (1,882 yards/21 touchdowns) is a tall order. Hampton will hand the keys to North’s souped-up, spread offense to either junior Willis Mitchell or sophomore Gavin Kuld. Mitchell auditioned well last season, completing two of three attempts for 57 yards in three early-season relief appearances.

“Mitchell knows the offense a little better,” Hampton said. “But Kuld (6-3, 175) has a decent arm and is growing into his body.”

North’s 4-2-5 defense is buoyed by senior DT Matthew Hoosier (6-3, 270). Last year, he was one of 16 Cavs named all-conference — and also landed on the all-county second team. “This guy’s big and athletic,” said Hampton. “He’s also a head-hunter on our kickoff team. When he makes up his mind, he’s unblockable.”

Hoosier will work side-by-side DE Darren Williams (6-2, 225), a returning starter who’s sack total reached double figures. Promising letterman Chaz McCombs (6-3, 250) — basketball fans know all about him — will play a more prominent role at DT. “He’s 15-years old,” said defensive coordinator Josh Sophia, “and held his own as a second-stringer. This year he’s a different animal — bigger, stronger, faster. He’s grown up.”

“We lost Thurston and DeBose (on defense), but we’ve got young guys with talent who know the line,” Hampton said. “We’re looking for big things out of them.”

North’s best linebacker is Nautica Patterson (5-10, 205), a junior who played in every game last season. Expect him to be a force.

The secondary is another concern. Hampton isn’t set on the alignment, but does have returning starters Terrin Smith and Josh Ellis, both seniors, as a foundation. Smith, a California transplant, spent 2016 adjusting from the man-to-man defense he learned on the West coast. “He’s quick and does what we ask him to do — make the play,” Sophia said. Ellis, a cornerback/strong safety/free safety hybrid, will make North’s defensive calls.

Fourth-year letterman Jacob Young returns to handle North’s kicking and punting duties. The senior converted nine field goals and 34 extra points and is so entrenched in school lore that his online handle is “#TheKicker.”

Webster and Wilson have a timeshare on kick and punt returns.

Then there’s the non-conference schedule. The Cavs (11-3, 5-0 CCC last year) will face two 2A and two 3A schools — all by design. Throw it all on the platform and you have to like North’s chances of catching the post-season train.

“We want to jump right in and win the YVC,” said Hampton. “Then see where it goes. Eleven-and-three last year didn’t hurt us. We’re hoping that momentum will carry over.”

It can’t start soon enough.

SOME CAVALIERS TO WATCH

Jaleel Webster, senior running back — A stealth bomber in shoulder pads, Flight 24 is clear for takeoff. Scored 12 TDs and led county with 1,466 rushing yards, including a school-record 302 on Sept. 30. Unique running style is part 18-wheeler, part Corvette.

Will Anthony, senior center — Kid with two first names will be easy to remember. All-CCC, all-county and all-in. Technically sound, he brings leadership to the huddle. Could be playing on Saturdays a year from now.

Matthew Hoosier, senior DT — Complete package who will dump its contents into enemy backfields. Fast the way a sneeze is fast. Much more wolf than sheep.

Jacob Young, senior P/K — Fourth-year kicker netted 61 points and averaged 31.8 yards-per-punt, with a long of 70. Stone-cold steady and reliable. Drilled more than half of his kickoffs into the end zone.

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