ST. PAULS — The familiarity on both sides is so close that when St. Pauls coach Ernest King talks about his opponents tomorrow night, it’s like he is a coach for his opponent as well.
There’s good reason considering King spent 12 years at E.E. Smith, the Bulldogs opponent to open the season, with his last three years as head coach of the program before taking over at St. Pauls.
“I’ve seen good and bad times there, but the time I was there, we only saw one losing season,” King said. “E.E. Smith kids are a special group of kids and I know they’re going to come out and play hard just because they’re playing their old coach and that’s what they teach at E.E. Smith. It’s the same thing that we teach our guys (at St. Pauls). Hopefully we can turn around and pull off a big one for our program.”
Despite knowing of who his opponents are, King knows that the group he is preparing for is not the same that he last coached in 2015.
“It helps out a lot to know those kids, but those kids are a year stronger, bigger and faster,” he said. “I saw those kids at 7-on-7s and they were midget and munchkins, but now they’re 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 now.”
King does know what the matchups will look like going up against his former players with his new crop of players now. The Bulldogs’ smaller and faster defensive unit will be tasked with taking on Xeavier Bullock, who threw for 1,900 yards and rushed for nearly 800 more at quarterback, and accounted for 33 total touchdowns last year.
“He’s a great leader and throws a good ball, and he’s become more of a run threat so that’s something we will have to worry about as well,” King said.
On the opposite side of the ball, the chess match between St. Pauls quarterback Noah Wheeler against lockdown defensive back Rayshawn Blake will be important as to how the Bulldogs move the ball through the air. Blake and fellow senior defensive back Joshua Adams combined for 13 interceptions last year.
“You got to know where he is. He’s a ball hawk in the secondary,” King said of Blake. “Our biggest thing is if our offense goes out and executes, it can go up against anybody.”
With many pass options likely to be disrupted, the run game with Wheeler and Marqueise Coleman will have to make up for what may be cut off by the Golden Bulls’ defense in the pass.
The Golden Bulls went 3-8 last year under Deron Donald in his first year taking over for King.
Pine Forest at Purnell Swett
The Trojans started off last season with a controversial win over the Rams to open the season with an 11-6 win.
The controversy came when Pine Forest scored a block extra point for two-points, which is not legal under NCHSAA rules. The Rams turned the ball over late in the soggy contest in Fayetteville.
Both offenses return several key pieces including starting quarterbacks that are now seniors. Luke Oxendine will direct the Rams offense in his second season as play caller against a Trojan defense that has holes to fill behind leading tackler Dominic Roberto.
Julian Hill has started at quarterback for Pine Forest in each of his first three seasons, but injury will have him sidelined for the first game and Lavonte Carter will take over the offense. He will depend on his offensive line to protect him against the Rams’ defensive line anchored by Kalan and Kaelin Locklear and Nate Brooks at linebacker.
South Brunswick at Red Springs
The Lawrence Ches era in Red Springs begins with his first game as head coach comes against South Brunswick at home.
Last season, the Cougars coached by former East Columbus coach Rocky Lewis struggled after a season-opening win against West Columbus and finished 1-10 on the year.
Ches has experience on his side being an assistant coach at Red Springs in the past and one of the most experienced defensive units in the county coming back led by last year’s county defensive player of the year Jerome Bass. Alongside Bass is Bobby McRae in the linebacking corps and Nichorie West leading the secondary.
The Red Devils offense is under the direction of sophomore Denym McKeithan at quarterback as he starts his first season playing quarterback. Fellow sophomore Lee McLean will be the workhorse running back for Red Springs after a standout freshman campaign running the ball alongside several seniors.
Dillon at Lumberton
Dillon, who has won four SCHSL state titles in the last five seasons, takes the drive north on Interstate 95 across the border to play Lumberton.
The Pirates defense showed that it could hold opponents in check in the Battle of the Carolinas as the Pirates lost 7-0, but held Marlboro from any scoring after an early score was set up on a short field after the turnover, but the offense has to keep priority with keeping possession and preventing costly turnovers.
This season the Pirates return talent on both sides of the ball with several key pieces on the defensive front seven, and a big offensive front ahead of a pair of offensive returners in quarterback Braylan Grice and running back Montrez Howell. Kwashek Breeden shown himself as a long ball threat for Grice to toss to during the Marlboro scrimmage as well.
Dillon went 13-2 last season and was defeated in the state title game.
Fairmont at Douglas Byrd
The only road game for Robeson County teams in the first week, Fairmont will open up Kevin Inman’s tenure and will have a new look on the offensive side of the ball.
Fairmont will look to get its new more balanced offense with Derrick Arnette at quarterback off on the right foot at Douglas Byrd. At the Battle of the Carolinas scrimmage against Lake View, the Golden Tornadoes showed the capability to more the ball with Arnette stretching the play outside the pocket.
Also learned from the scrimmage was how the defense has the ability to stand tall against the run, after struggling to stop teams on the ground in 2016. Leading the defensive unit is senior linebacker Sidney McKeithan.
The Ealges went winless in 2016 and have lost 14 games in a row dating back to 2015.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.