High school football: Falcons have blend of young talent and experience

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 13, 2023

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — There have been some break-evens, some 6-6 records here and there, plus a 4-4 in the shortened COVID season, but West Rowan hasn’t experienced a losing football season since 1998.

There’s been admirable consistency in the program and the desire to play football for West is still a priority for a lot of athletes. Head coach Louis Kraft expects to have 100 or so players. That’s about 25 more than any other school in the county.

While West has maintained its reputation as a consistent contender, it has been unable to recapture the glory days of championships and incredible winning streaks. West has been conference runner-up in each of the last four seasons. That’s solid, but it has also been frustrating. West has lost conference-title showdowns in those four seasons to Statesville (twice), Concord and Northwest Cabarrus.

The most recent conference championship for West came a dozen years ago, but the Falcons expect to be back in the chase once again. Most project the top tier of the South Piedmont Conference to include defending champ Northwest Cabarrus, new league member Robinson, which was a fearsome bully in 2A, and, as always, the Falcons.

West was 9-3 in 2022, including a marquee early victory against Salisbury and a playoff pounding of Franklin, but West also wasn’t far away from 7-5. The Carson and Davie games could have gone the other way with one bounce in the wrong direction.

“We believe we’ll have a good team again,” Kraft said. “We’ve got guys who don’t have that Friday night experience yet, but they are very talented guys. I don’t want to take anything away from last year’s team because we had a good football team that won nine games, but we might be better at every position on the field this year by the end of September.”

West got terrific offensive production in 2022 from three guys who were in brand new or greatly expanded roles. QB Luke Graham, receiver Adrian Stockton and running back Landon Jacobs all came through in grand fashion, but all three were one-hit wonders. They were seniors.

The leading returner among the skill players is junior Evan Kennedy, who had his remarkable sophomore season stopped short by knee surgery. Kennedy was equally tough as a receiver (36 catches, 651 yards) or running back (118 carries, 656 yards). He had a kickoff return touchdown and put the ball in the end zone 16 times.

He’s a dynamic player and will have to be game-planned for.

“He’s back healthy and good to go,” Kraft said. “He’s better than ever because he’s added 15 pounds of muscle without losing any speed. We’ll line him up at a lot of different places and we’ll try to get the ball in his hands. He should be a problem for our opponents and he could be in those player of the year conversations at the end of the season.”

Getting the ball to Kennedy will be the responsibility of sophomore QB Brant Graham, who was electrifying for the jayvee team. Kraft believes the new Graham will be one of the county’s marquee players for the next three seasons. The talent is there for the tall, three-sport athlete, he just needs time and reps and varsity game experience.

“Brant is another special kid,” Kraft said. “He pitched big varsity baseball games as a freshman and the moment was never too big for him. He started for the varsity basketball team as a freshman. He can make all the throws on a football field and he likes to get the ball down the field in a hurry. We can be explosive.”

West put up serious offensive numbers a year ago and averaged 33.4 points per game. There was so much offensive firepower that even with Jacobs and Kennedy putting up eye-catching rushing totals, Kayvone Norman got enough carries to produce 375 rushing yards. Now Norman could be used in the workhorse role that Jacobs excelled at last season.

Jaylen Neely was a standout for the jayvees in 2022 and is expected to be a factor running, receiving and returning.

“One of those do-it-all guys,” Kraft said.

Kaden Feaster will give West another exciting receiving threat.

“He was the go-to receiver for our jayvees, and he’s in that same mold as Adrian Stockton,” Kraft said. “He had a great summer. He’s a guy who could make a jump in a hurry.”

Slot man Nick Loeblein and rangy Elijah Holmes will be two more receiving options for Graham.

West will have an experienced offensive line protecting the sophomore QB and opening holes for the running game. Center Blake Rogers will be a rare four-year starter for the Falcons, while guard Tyler Cline is in his fourth year on varsity. Guard Grayson Burleson is another returning starter.

Max Kalinowski, the grandson of former Wofford head football coach Mike Ayers, can play guard or center and will be another important guy.

The tackles aren’t as experienced, but Addison Hunt, who has gained 30 solid pounds since last year, and Zykier Davis have the talent to make it one of those special West Rowan lines. Assistant coach Tim Pangburn, an All-State player in his West days and a former college coach at Catawba, pushes that group.

West’s defense allowed an average of 21 points last season, but was more rugged than that sounds. The per game average was skewed quite a bit by the 56-42 loss to West Henderson in the second round of the playoffs.

West returns two excellent defensive ends in Hunter Miller and Kevin Toomer. They’re smart and determined veterans and will get more than their share of sacks.

On the interior of the defensive line the Falcons will rely mostly on Dayvion McHenry, Diontaye Montgomery and Tallon Blackwell.

“We don’t have as much depth there as we expected to have,” Kraft said. “We lost two good guys to knee injuries in the spring. We’re hoping to get one back in October.”

Cameron Martin, a middle linebacker, has been a big addition. He’s a transfer from Mooresville.

“You can tell he’s been in the fire on Friday nights,” Kraft said.

Christian Addison is a returner as the strong side linebacker.

Kraft has high hopes for former guard Kayshawn Bombo as the other starting linebacker.

“He’s transformed his body in the last year,” Kraft said.

Free safety Aubree Robinson will be a leader in the defensive secondary. This will be his fourth year in a key role.

Kendrick Cornelius, Tyrin Little and Israel Ford are expected to round out the starting defensive backs. That group will once again be coached by Tim Dixon, one of the veteran assistant coaches in the county.

“The good thing about our DBs is they can all tackle,” Kraft said. “There’s nobody back there that we have to try to hide.”

Kraft likes his defensive starters, and the Falcons are working to add the necessary depth. Injuries happen in football.

“We’ve got a chance to be as good as we’ve been since I’ve been here on defense with that first 11,” Kraft said. “Now we’ve got to find 12, 13, 14 and 15.”

The kicking game will rely on new feet, with Andrew Mead and Carter Durant as potential placekickers and Durant and Alex Robinette as possible punters.

Loeblein will be the long snapper.

The non-conference portion of the schedule is comprised of always competitive 4A neighbors who care deeply about football. Davie is expected to have a prolific offense, while Mooresville has a stingy defense. A.L. Brown is A.L. Brown, and West has only beaten the Wonders once.

There won’t be many easy Fridays, but look for the Falcons to keep that long and impressive string of non-losing seasons going.