High school football preview: Year of change for Cougars
Published 12:01 am Sunday, August 7, 2022
Second in a series of reports on local high schools …
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — New Carson head football coach Jonathan Lowe projects an awesome aura of optimism.
“There’s nothing like football Fridays, so it’s easy to be excited,” Lowe said with a laugh. “Definitely excited about our players and the coaching staff we’ve put together. I’ve known the guys for a while as an assistant coach, but as a head coach, the relationship deepens. They’ve bought in to what we’re doing. They’ve done everything I could ask of them, and now it’s my job to steer the ship in the right direction.”
The numbers are up some. More than 70 players some days, and Lowe hopes for 80 by opening night.
Lowe said the coaching staff was temporarily down to two last winter — Lowe and veteran defensive coordinator Jason Stanley — but there’s a full complement of coaches now.
Barry Mitchem’s return to coach the defensive line is helpful. Mitchem is one of those universally loved guys that players will run through walls for.
“Believe” is the word the 28-year-old Lowe throws around every minute or so. He believes the Cougars can break out of that 4-6 groove they’ve fallen into. He believes the Cougars can be more than competitive.
It’s not easy to win at Carson. Carson has managed seven playoff teams in 16 seasons of football, but only two playoff wins.
The most recent playoff victory for the Cougars came 12 years ago, when Lowe was a student at East Rowan.
Carson, which got off to an 0-22 start in the football business, has now won 65, while losing 114.
Lowe’s main goal is to mold solid citizens and create memories for the players and their families, but he also plans to win some football games along the way.
Maybe the Cougars can. It shouldn’t be overlooked how strong they finished last fall in Daniel Crosby’s last season as head coach. They won their last three South Piedmont Conference games to get into the 3A state playoffs, and they didn’t embarrass themselves in losing to Crest in the first round.
Lowe said back in February when he was hired to follow Crosby that he’d adapt his offense and defense to the personnel on hand, and he wasn’t kidding. Carson will go with old-school I-formation offense and new-school 4-2-5 defense to try to slow down the numerous teams that want to air it out.
I-formation football requires a capable tailback and unselfish fullbacks and tight ends willing to prioritize blocking tenacity over their stats. It also requires offensive lineman strong enough to pound and athletic enough to pull. Looking over his roster, Lowe doesn’t see K.P. Parks, but he does see the things he needs to see in order to succeed with the “I.” Carson has a lot of good linemen.
Carson got major mileage out of the split-back veer offense in 2021, with seniors Hunter Burris and Carter Dowd combining for more than 1,700 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. But Carson threw for only two touchdowns all season.
So Lowe’s task is to continue that ground success while adding a viable passing threat.
The quarterback will be Michael Guiton, a junior who has been guiding the jayvees. He’s on the small side, but he’s smart and he can throw.
“I believe he’s a great fit for this offense,” Lowe said. “He’s not going to be asked to make option reads, but he’s going to be counted on to identify fronts and to adjust plays at the line and to hit (play-action) passes. He threw a lot of touchdown passes in our 7-on-7s. We’re stoked about him.”
The tailback with experience is Jordan Galarza. Carson’s third running option in 2021, he had 117 carries for 526 yards and five touchdowns. Makani Guida and Jay McGruder are also in the tailback mix. That’s a workhorse position. They’ll all get carries.
Dalton Gay is going to be the lead-blocking fullback, with Guida, Kody Samples and impressive youngster Nehemiah Baldwin also in that rotation.
Tight ends are Easton Mullis, Cody Russell, Jake Ross, Graham Yarbrough and DJ Williams.
Most of those athletes are going to also figure prominently on defense.
“A lot of guys are working on offense and defense,” Lowe said. “I think it helps that they understand responsibilities on both sides of the ball. If you’re starting on one side of the ball, you’ll be depth on the other side.”
Wideouts include basketball star Jay Howard, last season’s leading receiver with a modest nine catches for 176 yards and a TD.
Emory Taylor is a major addition to the receiving corps. Taylor didn’t play in the fall of 2021, but in the COVID-delayed spring season of 2021 when he was a sophomore, he had 28 varsity catches for 467 yards. He can run and is one of the school’s best athletes in three sports.
Other receivers to watch are CJ Guida, Cooper Henson, Josh Heath and Tyler Vitale.
Trevor Vaughn will be primarily a defensive player if everything goes according to plan, but he’ll be a dangerous receiver whenever he’s employed on offense.
“He’s that Swiss Army knife for us,” Lowe said. “Safety, wide receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner. He’s been working every morning since February. He’s always in the gym or in the film room.”
Carson will have some big, experienced men up front. Joseph Giles, Tristen McBride and Bryson Bare look the part.
Bare has tools and is getting more aggressive. McBride, son of former Catawba linebacker Shawn McBride, attended a lot of camps during the summer months. Giles is a tough senior who can long-snap.
More linemen to know are Bailey Tesch, Garrett Christy, Owen Hurlocker, Tristan Ruhnow, Drue Gillis, Jervey Hill and Ricky Galarza.
“Our offensive lineman aren’t just big, there’s a lot of chiseled, strong guys in that group,” Lowe said. “Our o-line coach (Zach Overcash) says we’ve got 10 good ones for five positions.”
Luis Avilez, who kicked three field goals and a bushel of extra points, is expected to handle place-kicking chores. Foday Dyer is the likely punter.
Carson should be dangerous on returns with Howard, Vaughn, Taylor and CJ Guida serving as potential deep men. Howard had a return TD last season, while Taylor housed a kick as a sophomore.
Carson allowed 26-plus points per game on defense last fall, but should be stingier this time.
“We’re fast on the defensive side,” Lowe said. “Coaches who have been around a long time tell me it’s one of the fastest Carson defenses. Strong and thick up front, but those guys can move.”
The defensive line will feature many of the same players who will be part of the offensive line rotation. Giles, McBride, Bare, Yarbrough, Hill and Ruhnow will be in there, and Carson also returns Cody Russell, an aggressive and experienced defensive end.
Mullis and Ross will be the middle level of the 4-2-5 defense most of the time. They are proven tacklers. Gay, Connor Rayfield and Carter Breitzman will also play a lot at linebacker.
In the defensive secondary, track sprinter Carson Aman will be the free safety.
“A ballhawk and he can fly,” Lowe said.
Taylor, Howard, Dyer and Drew Masingo are expected to handle most of the snaps at cornerback.
Manning those strong safety/outside linebacker roles in the 4-2-5 alignment will be Vaughn and Baldwin.
Lowe is very high on Baldwin, who has the speed and skills to develop into something special.
The SPC was not an overwhelming football league last fall, so the Cougars have every reason to be optimistic. They’ve got enough seasoned players that contending in the conference is a realistic goal.
The concern is depth. With so many players counted on for action both ways, every injury is going to be like two injuries. The Cougars have to be lucky health-wise. They have to stay in one piece.
Lowe talked about the cougar in the wild being at the apex of nature’s food chain. The cougar has to be wary of grizzlies, really large eagles and humans with rifles, but basically he stalks and preys upon whomever he pleases with few worries.
Lowe says it’s time for the Carson Cougars to do the stalking and preying on the football field.
He not only thinks it, he believes it.
The Rowan County Jamboree at South Rowan on Aug. 12 should be entertaining. Carson will scrimmage North Rowan at 7 p.m. North is about as good as it gets at the offensive skill positions, so Carson’s 4-2-5 will get a good test. In the trenches, Carson should have the edge on its 1A foe.
A tough opener with Statesville looms for the Cougars on Aug. 19. Statesville is always as fast as anyone Carson will face all season.
Week 2 also will be fun. The Cougars will face Crosby’s Mount Pleasant team.
Coach: Jonathan Lowe (1st year)
2021 record: 4-6 (3-3 3A South Piedmont Conference, tied, 3rd)
Playoffs: Lost 28-7 to Crest first round