High school football: Experienced linemen give East a chance to be better

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 17, 2023

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — It’s been a hard football ride for the East Rowan Mustangs in this century.

East has been home to nine different head coaches since 2000. None of them stepped down or moved on with a winning record. Even Brian Hinson, who guided some super teams in his time at Salisbury, was 17-19 during his three seasons at East.

So it’s fair to say East is not a place where you can routinely win football games. There have been a few awesome periods of success, but all-time, East has tasted the agony of defeat 131 more times than the thrill of victory.

East was 1-9 last season, with a two-TD win over South Rowan. East was 1-8 the year before that, with a two-TD win over South Rowan.

The Mustangs broke even at 6-6 for current coach John Fitz in 2018 with a very competitive squad and they were an exciting 7-7 for coach Kenneth McClamrock, including two memorable playoff wins, in 2014.

But you have to go back to 2012, a Danny Misenheimer-coached team, to find a winning season in the East record book. That team was 8-5 and won twice in the playoffs. Diehard East fans remain convinced the Mustangs also won in the third round on the road but had that one taken away.

Despite the losses, East soldiers on. The Mustangs played hard, played tough and played physical in 2022. While the scoreboard didn’t always reflect it, East gave most SPC opponents a hard time for a quarter or a half or even for three quarters.

But putting four quarters together was an elusive goal.

So what’s in store for East in 2023 in a league that got quite a bit stouter with the mid-realignment addition of former 2A bully Jay M. Robinson.

Better days may lie ahead for the Mustangs. East is growing. The freshman class, 338 strong, is relatively huge, both in terms of general student population and as far as athletes. East had dropped below 1,000 students for a time, but will charge back over 1,100 this school year.

“Eighty-five kids came out for football, the most in a long time,” Fitz said. “When I first came to East, there were 1,275 kids in the school and you’d get 100 out for football. Now our numbers are getting back up. That makes a difference.”

East scored 13 points per game in 2022, while allowing 36 per game, so there’s plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball.

East moved the ball well at times and racked up substantial yardage, especially passing yardage, but turnovers kept the Mustangs from putting up a sufficient number of points.

East threw a lot, although not as often as it seemed. Fitz’s charts indicate the Mustangs threw 56 percent of the time and ran it 44 percent.

Quarterback Gavin Walker, who produced eight touchdown passes, returns. He had the most completions in Rowan County in 2022 with 141 and was second in passing yardage with 1,641.

But 18 interceptions negated a lot of the positive numbers. Picks halted East drives or led to short-field points for opponents.

Will Klingler has moved up from the jayvees to challenge Walker for the starting job.

“We’ve actually got a pretty good quarterback battle going on,” Fitz said. “We’ll probably play both of those guys.”

East’s offense relies heavily on RPO (Run-Pass Option), so the quarterback’s ability to read defenses and make quick decisions is critical to success.

East’s running game could be quicker and deeper than it was a year ago, mostly because of improved health. Billy Chesney, Tijon Everhart and Tyquan Danzine are expected to get carries and catch passes.

AJ Goodman returns to lead the receivers. Goodman caught 45 passes for 467 yards and four touchdowns. He tied for second in the county in receptions and was eighth in receiving yards. The only returning players in the county who had more receiving yardage are West Rowan’s Evan Kennedy and Salisbury’s Deuce Walker.

East is missing Logan Dyer (summer labrum surgery), but Logan Stamey has some experience, and Jordan Brooks, one of the school’s best athletes, could have a breakout season.

“Brooks is a triple jumper,” said Fitz, who is also East’s track and field coach. “If you can triple jump, you’re an athlete.”

Experienced offensive linemen could be a key to improvement by the Mustangs. East has some quality returners there, players such as Caleb Shugart, Brandon Grooms, Tim Grooms and Bubby Lentz.

Carter Honeycutt’s accuracy on field goals and PATs are expected to provide a lot of points for the Mustangs.

East has to replace key defensive players such as Josh Roman-Soto and Morgan Padgett.

East does boast some strength on the defensive line with McCall Henderson providing muscle at tackle and Jacob Butler, the stout track and field thrower, looking to produce some sacks at end.

Sophomore Gavin Hodgson has been impressive. Fitz said a plethora of other sophomores are competing to man the interior spot next to Henderson.

Matthew Petty, Corbin Moose, Luke Eller and Greyson Eller are expected to lead the linebackers.

East is a 4-2-5 defensive team. Newcomer Josh Payne and Jaden Reid are expected to man the corners, with Joe Burleyson, Logan Leon and Jaquare “JJ” Jones at the safeties.

Fitz is entering his seventh season at the helm, making him the dean of Rowan County head football coaches. East hasn’t had such a stable head-coaching tenure since W.A. Cline’s second tour of duty at East in the 1990s.

East Rowan’s opening night tussle with North Rowan, which has an exceptional running back and quarterback, will provide a good barometer of where the Mustangs are, especially on the defensive side of the ball. East also will take on Salisbury in a non-conference game, so the Mustangs will be the only Rowan squad that plays every other team in the county.

The only game on East’s schedule that isn’t a county game or an SPC game will be against North Stanly, a neighboring school that East has played often over the years.

“Looking at our team, I think we’re strong on both lines, and that’s big,” Fitz said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to go 8-2, but we do have some experienced players. I feel pretty good about where we are.”