Here’s a look from staff writer Brad Crawford at Friday’s Week 1 high school football games involving teams from Robeson County:
South Robeson at West Bladen
Coaches: South Robeson — Stephen Roberson; West Bladen — Russell Dove
Recent history: South Robeson snapped a 17-game losing streak that dated back to 2010 last season with a 33-10 victory over the Knights in the season opener. West Bladen counters this season with first-year head coach Russell Dove.
What to watch: Equipped with the most athletes the program has seen in several years, can South Robeson’s offensive line move the opposition off the football enough for its playmakers to work? The Mustangs’ ability to block up front is the leading question heading into the season, an element that was the lead culprit in most losses during last year’s 3-7 finish. West Bladen is coming off a winless season, but returns several standouts on offense that could pose problems for South Robeson including all-state receiver Malcolm Vaught.
Keep an eye on: South Robeson’s Juan Ellerbe, the Purnell Swett transfer who has made the biggest impact in recent scrimmages. Ellerbe picked up two fumbles and had six tackles last week against Westover and Roberson likes his ability to run between the tackles with force on the other side of the football.
Pine Forest at Purnell Swett
Coaches: Pine Forest — Bill Sochovka; Swett — Mark Heil
Recent history: Pine Forest’s 19-6 win over the Rams last season snapped the Trojans’ five-game losing streak in the series. The two teams were previously rivals in the Two Rivers Conference before Swett joined the Southeastern in 2009.
What to watch: The Rams are hoping to bounce back from last season’s abysmal 2-8 finish thanks to an offense that had more turnovers than touchdowns while Pine Forest believes it has the necessary tools on defense to get over the hump in the Mid-South Conference against the likes of E.E. Smith and Jack Britt. The key matchup Friday night in Pembroke will be how Swett’s five new starters along the offensive line fare against what is likely the most talented defensive front it will face all season. Swett’s passing game with reliable targets Tyler Maynor and Donovan Locklear provides big-play sources if there’s enough time.
Keep an eye on: Pine Forest defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard, who will also see snaps at guard when the Trojans have the football, is the best interior lineman the Rams will face this season. He’s dominant off the snap and towers over most blockers when the action is coming his way. Gaillard committed to Georgia in July.
Douglas Byrd at Lumberton
Coaches: Byrd — Russell Stone; Lumberton — Joe Salas
Recent history: While Lumberton often matches up with several teams from Cumberland County during the non-conference portion of its schedule each season, rarely is Douglas Byrd the opposition. Friday marks the first head-to-head meeting between the two of the 21st century.
What to watch: The Joe Salas era begins at Lumberton against a region power from Fayetteville coached by a guy with strong ties to Robeson County. Byrd’s Russell Stone, a Rowland native, coached three seasons at Lumberton from 1988-90, compiling an 11-19 record and has been on the sidelines at three different area programs. His Eagles are the preseason favorite to win the Cape Fear Valley 3A Conference.
Keep an eye on: Byrd quarterback Elijah Bulger, a first-year starter who’s athletic in the pocket and especially efficient rolling to his right. Bulger is the Eagles’ best cover corner, but coaches feel his talents can be further utilized with the football in his hands as a senior. It’s tough to classify Byrd’s offense as spread when option and counter are two of the Eagles’ best plays.
Red Springs at White Oak
Coaches: Red Springs — George Coltharp; White Oak — Chad Ashley
Recent history: These two programs have never met, but the Vikings are a 3A program from the challenging Coastal Conference and have one of the toughest schedules in the state.
What to watch: Will the Vikings be able to match Red Springs’ speed on offense? This won’t be the ultimate test for the Red Devils’ new-look offensive line since White Oak is coming off a 1-10 campaign, but Red Springs will need to protect the football and limit negative plays to keep the first downs coming. With games against Southwest Onslow, Havelock and Swansboro post-Red Springs, White Oak’s opener should be a good barometer on how it will defend a few 3A heavyweights later down the road this season. Blake Greene, Doody Lesane and CJ McGeachy is a triple threat comparable to any three athletes the Vikings will battle.
Keep an eye on: Pound for pound White Oak’s best player, senior running back Kendall White has garnered interest from Charlotte, Coastal Carolina and N.C. State this summer despite being a basketball player at heart. He packs a punch on defense as well, starting at safety with a 6-foot, 205-pound frame.
St. Pauls at Gray’s Creek
Coaches: St. Pauls — Trey Sasser; Gray’s Creek — David Lovette
Recent history: Separated by a single exit on Interstate 95, Gray’s Creek has dominated the non-league rivalry since opening its doors in 2003 winning the last four contests by an average of 38 points per game. The Bulldogs’ two wins over that span came during the first season and in 2006.
What to watch: In last season’s matchup, the Bulldogs were embarrassed after giving up 550 yards rushing and 70 points to Gray’s Creek’s offense. A new-look defense coordinated by Mike Paroli is hoping that won’t happen again, even if the Bears are perhaps more athletic with a new quarterback. Red Springs native Ken McDowell is now at UNC-Greensboro, so that’s one 2,684-yard weapon St. Pauls won’t have to worry about defensively. The Bears won’t have any starters over 225 pounds along the offensive line, but one should be quick to point out a similar scenario during Gray’s Creek’s 12-2 finish in 2009. By comparison, St. Pauls has two 300-plus pound senior guards in Shayron Jones and Matt Lowery-Ivey.
Keep an eye on: St. Pauls’ Malik Livingston and Gray’s Creek’s Jeffrie Gibson, two seniors making their first starts at quarterback in two entirely different offenses. Livingston runs the show in Scott Barbour’s uptempo spread while Gibson will call the shots in Lovette’s Wing-T. Each signal caller can move, but their accuracy rate through the air remains to be seen.
East Bladen at Fairmont
Coaches: East Bladen — Robbie Priest; Fairmont — Randy Ragland
Recent history: In the most recent matchup, East Bladen beat the Golden Tornadoes in Elizabethtown, 46-15, on Sept. 24, 2010. The home-and-home trip to Fairmont happens this week.
What to watch: It’s out with the old and in with the new at East Bladen where Robbie Priest begins his first season with the Eagles following Lenon Fisher’s retirement. He’ll be looking across the sideline at another new face in Randy Ragland, Fairmont’s choice to work out the kinks following last season’s 4-7 debacle under James Atkinson. Two different offensive philosophies will be put into action at two programs filled with athletes. Can Fairmont halt East Bladen’s three-headed rushing attack? Can the Eagles limit the Golden Tornadoes’ threats through the air? By the end of the first quarter, opposing staffs will have figured out what’s going to work and what’s not in the opener.
Keep an eye on: Fairmont quarterback Jarrod Neal who is back at full strength and ready for a banner senior season in Ragland’s pass-heavy attack. He’s looked polished throughout the summer and tossed two touchdown passes in four series against E.E. Smith during last week’s Two Rivers Jamboree. The Golden Tornadoes’ production on offense starts with No. 1 in the shotgun.
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.