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Knights, Drakeford ready to win now

Posted: August 9, 2018 12:06 p.m.
Updated: August 10, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

KALAB HAVEN (15) played against North Central a year ago. Now, the sophomore two-way performer has transferred to join the Knights.

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When you are a cornerback, at any level, you had better be confident and have a short memory. That old deodorant commercial of never letting anybody see you sweat was seemingly written with these men in mind.

Tyronne Drakeford knows that feeling all too well from his days when he was manning up against wide receivers at North Central High School, then to a decorated career at Virginia Tech which led him into the NFL where, as a second round draft pick by San Francisco in 1994, he was a member of the 49ers’ Super Bowl championship team as a rookie.

In his first season as head coach at North Central in 2017, Drakeford was always positive which, at times, was probably not easy to do given the Knights’ final 2-8 record. Each week, however, after a win or loss, Drakeford looked ahead, accentuating the positive. Until the final whistle to end the season blew, there was always another week to get better; another chance for his team to improve.

That attitude carried over into the offseason in Boonetown. Now, with a varsity roster which hovers close to 40 players including nine seniors, the Knights are poised to try and make a return to the state class AA playoffs for the first time since 2013.

A year ago, it was rush job at North Central as Drakeford did not arrive at the school until several weeks before the start of spring practice. Combine that with adding new assistant coaches and learning new names and faces and the 2017 Knights were adjusting on the fly. This past offseason was much more structured and, calm.

“Just having the kids understand what we want from them and having been in the system for a year, this offseason has probably been 10 times better than what I expected,” Drakeford said.

“It was definitely important to have that year under your belt because it gives you that opportunity to install what you want. The kids understand what you want to do now from a coaching standpoint.”

Aside from on-field coaching, Drakeford said the work put in by defensive coordinator and strength coach Ryan McDonnell has already paid dividends as the Knights, as a team, are in better condition than they were a year ago at this time. “I think our strength program is headed in the right direction. Coach McDonnell is doing a great job,” Drakeford said.

There is a positive vibe going on along Lockhart Road and on the practice field at North Central. It all starts at the top of the ladder with Drakeford who is beginning to see his plan come into place.

“I think the biggest thing is that kids are starting to buy into what I’m selling,” he said. “You have to start expecting to win when you get on the field and not hoping to win and having things go your way. They’re expecting to win. Even in practice, they’re competing against their own teammates and looking forward to the challenge.”

 

Quarterbacks The Knights lost record-setting quarterback Bubba Williamson to graduation and, after his signing, to Western Carolina. NC returned both senior Tyler Faulkenberry (6-1, 155) who was the starter under center when Williamson missed the entire 2016 season with an injury. Also returning was junior Austin Bowers (5-10, 160) who was the starter at Andrew Jackson last year when Williamson missed the game with a head injury. With two signal-callers with starting experience on hand, what did the Knights do? They turned to senior Avante’ Reynolds (5-10, 150), who started at cornerback a season ago. “Avante’ is probably the most versatile player on our team,” Drakeford said of the move. “He is not as good a thrower as Bubba but, he can run the offense. Avante’ can throw the ball well and he’s athletic; he can get us into positions where we can run the ball a lot more and give the opposing defense a challenge so that they’re not always keying on our running backs.”

 

Running Backs An already solid crop of backs received a shot in the arm when sophomore Kalab Haven (5-11, 185) transferred in from rival Andrew Jackson along with his older brother, senior wide out/defensive back/backup quarterback Hunter Haven (6-0, 185). Haven rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in AJ’s 28-0 win over North Central as a freshman. He will join senior fourth-year starter Jamel Jones (6-1, 185), who Drakeford said is “probably our best athlete skill-wise and strength-wise” and junior Mar’Rique Simon (5-10, 160), who had a 200-yard, four-touchdown night in a 47-0 win over Great Falls last year. Freshman Sentrell Davis-Warren (5-9, 165) could also see time in what has become a suddenly crowded and deep position.

 

Receivers When Reynolds goes up top, he will have several trusted targets including third-year starting senior wide outs Markell Portee (6-1, 170) and Faulkenberry along with fellow classmate Esteban Rodriguez (5-10, 160) who started at receiver as a junior. Hunter Haven can also play on the outside while senior Zyqwan Dunham (6-1, 192) has the upper hand at tight end which can also have senior Tyrek Jenkins (6-4, 230) come in, as needed. 

 

Offensive Linemen Things have changed on the offensive front more than any other group for the Knights. Skylar Blackburn is a 6-3, 320-pound junior center who will be flanked by guards Matthew Littlefield, a 5-11, 190-pound junior, and senior D’mitri Robinson (6-0, 185), a converted running back. At tackle, NC will send out seniors Tanner Stephens (6-2, 245) and Jenkins; the latter who can also play tight end should the need arise and if depth on the line can be developed. Drakeford said the Knights are thin in terms of depth along the offensive front with mostly freshmen and sophomores vying for the backup roles.

 

Offensive Outlook The Knights will mainly operate out of the pro-style, two-back set to try and take advantage of their skill and experience in the backfield. They will go to the spread formation in order to keep opposing defenses honest and prevent them from clogging the middle in order to try and slow down the ground game. “Even though we have some good skill players, we think our strength may be our running backs. We have some dynamic, young guys there,” Drakeford said. “We also have weapons on the outside and we’ll find ways to get the ball to those guys, too.”

 

Defensive Linemen Blackburn used the offseason to get into great shape which will allow him to play both ways as he will line up at tackle in the three-man front. Jenkins and Littlefield will start opposite each other at end as all three players will be asked to play on both sides of the football. Providing depth will be junior Noe Herrera (5-11, 235) and sophomore Miles Stukes (5-10, 255).

 

Linebackers Jones, who can track down ballcarriers on the edge, returns at one outside post while Dunham will be across the way. Inside, Robinson and Kalab Haven have gotten a bulk of the reps in practice and have shown ball-hawking tendencies for a unit which allowed opponents to score better than 45 points per game a year ago. Look for junior D’Avian Jones (6-1, 187) and possibly, freshman Chandler Shropshire (5-10, 200) to get long looks, as well.

 

Defensive Backs Portee returns to man one corner while the freshman, Davis-Warren, will be thrown into the fire and start on the other side. Reynolds and Faulkenberry will both be back in the secondary and form the Knights’ last line of defense at safety. Hunter Haven will also likely see time in the defensive backfield as will sophomores Shyheem Shropshire (5-11, 162), Tyler Slayton (5-10, 155) and freshman Jaylen Wood (6-0, 155).

 

Defensive Outlook The Knights will employ a three-man front, which they ran on defense a season ago. There are several familiar names on defense which lists as many as seven players who are also projected starters on offense. Drakeford said that is where he and his staff hope offseason and preseason conditioning will pay off. “That’s why we made sure that we had our guys do a lot of conditioning. I think they’ll be ready to go both ways,” he said. “From a coaching standpoint, if we have to call time outs earlier than we normally would, we’ll do that to give our guys a blow. More importantly, we have to make sure our backups can fill in so there is not much of a drop off from the starters.”

 

Season Outlook Drakeford lived up to his word from when he took the NC job when he said he wanted to play the best teams he could in his team’s non-conference contests. He did that this year by adding defending 2016 state class A champion and 2017 state runner-up Lamar to the schedule to join AAA rival Camden. “That’s one of the things that I wanted to do when I came here. I wanted to play against some top-caliber teams. Even during the preseason, I want to play bigger schools so our kids can see more talent and go against teams which have a legitimate first and second team offense and defense. It’s going to challenge us but, I want to see where we are so that when we get to region play, we’re ready to go.”

The Knights will vie for one of five state class AA post-season berths allotted to seven-member Region 4-AA. The circuit is annually one of the toughest in the state and Drakeford is looking forward to the challenge. “We expect to be in the thick of things because we have more experience this year whereas, we had just four seniors last season. We have more senior leadership and the experience factor of our guys’ wanting to win.”

 

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