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Knights back in familiar territory in Region 4-AA
Will Jenkins.JPG
WILLIAM JENKINS IS COMING off a junior campign in which the North Central tailback rushed for a county best 1,585 yards and 11 touchdowns. - photo by C-I photo by Tom Didato

2014 schedule

Aug. 22 C.A. Johnson
Aug. 29 at Timmonsville
Sept. 5 East Clarendon
Sept. 12 Camden Military Academy
Sept. 19 Open
Sept. 26 at Buford *
Oct. 3 at Chesterfield *
Oct. 10 Andrew Jackson *
Oct. 17 at Indian Land *
Oct. 24 Cheraw *
Oct. 31 Central *

* Denotes region game
All games have a 7:

For almost as long as North Central fans can remember, schools such as Andrew Jackson, Indian Land, Buford and Chesterfield have been the region rivals of the Knights’ athletic teams.
For the past two years, however, after the school was moved back into the state’s AA ranks, the list of its conference mates changed. Gone were teams from Lancaster and Chesterfield counties, being replaced by Columbia city schools such as Keenan, Eau Claire and Columbia. When those programs came to Boonetown for football games or, when the Knights headed to Bolden Stadium and Memorial Stadium in the Capital city on Friday nights, the atmosphere was, well, lacking.
Those days ended when North Central was moved into Region 4-AA, a seven-team circuit which includes the school’s aforementioned  rivals along with Cheraw and Central. For Knights’ head football coach Louis Clyburn, moving out of the city and into a more rural setting could not have been greeted with more enthusiasm.
“Our new region is going to be really fun, I think,” said the sixth-year NC boss. “The places that we’re going to visit on Fridays nights --- Chesterfield, Central, Cheraw, Andrew Jackson, Buford, Indian Land --- not that the other people we played (in Region 3-AA) did not take football seriously, but football is important at those (in Region 4-AA) schools. That makes it fun.
“When you go to one of those places or, when they come to you for a football game, they bring fans and they bring excitement. It really makes it fun. That’s one of the things that we’re looking forward to.”
Atmosphere aside, Clyburn and company know the bar will be raised for the Knights’ program as they seek to compete in their new “old” league. NC went without a win in Region 3-AA last season, something which sticks in the craw of their players and coaching staff. While the team’s non-conference slate of four games has been tempered a bit, Clyburn knows things will heat up once that portion of the schedule is behind them.
“Will this region be tougher and the competition better?” Clyburn asked, “Absolutely. Cheraw has been pretty tough and Central is Central, but they can be beaten on a given Friday night, which has happened, especially, in the past couple of years. It’s been a fun region to be a part of.”
How much fun the Knights, who went 3-8 a season ago, will have in 4-AA may well be determined by their ability to stop people. NC lost eight starters from a defense which allowed better than 22 points per outing last year. In spite of the heavy hits dealt by graduation, Clyburn said he and defensive coordinator Guy Eckenroth believe this year’s young unit could fly under the radar and may make a name for themselves before it is all said and done.
“We lost a bunch of good football players on defense,” Clyburn admitted. “But Coach Eckenroth and I were just saying the other day that we’re excited about the young defense that we’re going to have.”
The situation is more stable on the offensive side of the football which returns senior tailback William Jenkins, who shed 20 pounds in the off-season and is a leaner, shiftier back than the one who rushed for 1,585 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior.
While Jenkins will continue to be the bell cow for the rushing attack, he will not have to go it alone. The Knights added sophomore Cedric Cunningham, a talented transfer from Richland Northeast, who gives them a two-headed monster in the a crowded backfield which also includes senior Jay Parks, who rushed for 178 yards last season, and sophomore Delmarcus Wood.
“Obviously, with a senior running back like William Jenkins, we’re going to run the football,” Clyburn said. “But we also have some young running backs that we’re excited about.
“The thing that’s going to be different is that you are going to see more kids in more places. Parks is going to play linebacker, some safety and he’s going to play some at receiver. William Jenkins is going to play slot receiver and outside linebacker. John Bowers is our starting quarterback and he’s also taking reps at outside linebacker and safety.”
Depth is not a concern at quarterback with Bowers, senior Hunter Wyant and freshman Michael  Williamson each taking snaps. Wyant was the primary starter under center last season and threw for 750 yards and eight touchdowns. He will also see time at receiver and safety. Bowers, a lefty, passed for 70 yards and a score. Williamson, Clyburn said, adds more than just depth to the position and is coming off a strong showing in the summer.
“You can go out there and see that those kids are competing,” Clyburn said. “I told all three of our quarterbacks that one thing which is going to be different is that our quarterback is going to run the football. You are going to have to defend that quarterback and we feel good about all three of them running the ball.”
Saying this is the deepest pool of skill players he has had in his tenure in Boonetown, Clyburn will mix and match his personnel.  Parks, Wood and sophomore DeShon Bethea, junior Josh Flores and even Bowers can play the slot receiver position. Juniors Robert Carter, Markeis Barnes, Quin Douglas and sophomore Zach Jones will be the wide outs.
In an offense which will employ three receivers and two running backs a majority of the time, senior Will Mathis and junior Quin Muldrow will split time at tight end.
NC suffered an unexpected loss when starting center Javon Kershaw moved to Miami in the summer. His departure has created a four-man scramble for his former spot between senior Cody Privette, junior Jakob Barton, sophomores Patrick Majors, Chance Grein --- a transfer --- and 230-pound freshman Chance Mangum.
While who will earn the starting role at center is still undecided, Clyburn is feeling good about the rest of his line. Junior Kirk Hudson is back at right guard with sophomore Jerimiah Jenkins  at left guard. Josh Lawson, a junior, has won the right tackle job with 6-foot-1, 300-pound sophomore John Shelly providing depth there. Senior Darius Myres has locked down the left tackle post for  a second straight year.
“On offense,” Clyburn said, “our goals have to be that we’re not going to turn the ball over and we’re not going to have negative plays which, in essence, will get us first downs. If we continue to get first downs and get into the red zone, our goal has to be to score. Those are the steps we go through each day.”
A year ago, the Knights were able to move the ball between the 20s with relative ease. But, Clyburn said, too many times, drives fizzled once in the red zone. Curing that was one of the areas which the NC staff addressed in the off-season.
“More touchdowns … that has to be our focus,” he said. “We were able to move the ball last year but then, something would happen in the red zone like a turnover or mistake. We need to score more touchdowns.”
Clyburn said his offense will still operate out of the no-huddle but will have a few new wrinkles in a run-first philosophy.
“We visited Duke to try and figure out how they were doing more with less,” Clyburn said of a coaching staff trip to his college alma mater. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Duke University is not signing a top 10 class every year. Then, all of a sudden, they’re in the ACC championship. They’re doing something right.
“We got a few new ideas as to how to put our schemes together. Our schemes are going to be the same but we’ve tweaked how we call defenses and the way we call our offense. We feel like we’ve made things more efficient on both offense and defense.”
Filling the holes on defense was also a point of emphasis in the off-season. The Knights will be sleeker on that side of the football and will try to get as many defenders to the ball as quickly as possible, which is the main goal for this new-look unit.
The three-man front will have junior J.J. Stevens at nose guard with Shelly and sophomore Deaunte Samuel seeing time in the trenches behind Stevens. Flanking the tackle will be a rotation of Hudson and Lawson at one end with sophomore Gwendon Baldwin on the other side.
The spur --- strong side --- linebacker, who will also be asked to play along the line in some situations will be manned by the pairing of Mathis and Jenkins. The inside linebackers will be a rotating quartet which includes senior Jeromy Alexander, Parks, Samuel and Flores. The weak side linebacker has Zach Jones, Parks and Bowers all in the mix.
Cunningham and Quinton Douglas have taken most of reps at safety with Wyant and Bethea providing depth there. After a solid summer, Wood and Barnes seemed to have put a clamp down on the starting cornerback slots with sophomore Robert Carter and Patrick Carter, a 5-11, 170-pound freshman and, possibly, the team’s fastest player, also getting long looks in the secondary.
“On defense,” Clyburn said, “we need to know our assignments. When somebody gets into a certain formation, we have to know what our assignment is and then, tackle the ball carrier. If we can do that, we will force teams to punt or, create turnovers.”
Clyburn said this team is different than any other he has coached at North Central in the fact that “we’re more physical, we’re in better shape and we have more kids who have lifted weights and have bought into our program than we ever have had. Football is important to them,” he said.
That being said, the Knights still have to earn the respect they believe they deserve. That will happen not through words, their coach said, as it will with their actions on the field. Clyburn said he likes the attitude his team and program has taken as they head into what could be some rather choppy waters in Region 4-AA.
As for the circuit itself, the NC head coach does not feel any team in the loop will be able to run the six-game tables. That, Clyburn said, makes the conference wide-open and anybody’s to win.
While not proclaiming his Knights are ready to swoop in the take the league in their first try, Clyburn said his team needs to concentrate on the here and now as opposed to looking ahead and the end of the season.
Clyburn said his team is prepared to lay their chips on the table and see what unfolds.
“Our first goal is to have a winning season,” he said. “One of the things I have learned in my years in coaching, especially under people like Coach (Steve)Spurrier, is that you have to have realistic expectations. If we would have still been in 1A, our goals would have been to challenge for and to win a region championship.
“When you move up the ladder to AA football, it’s tough. I think the goals and expectations of this football program is to, ultimately, win a championship. I don’t know where it’s going to come from or how it’s going to be but that first one is to win a region championship. And for us to win a region championship, we first have to have a winning season.”
For now, as the team moving from one neighborhood into another, Clyburn said he and the Knights are prepared to be the squad which the holdovers will try and bully around.
Guess what, Clyburn said. Some of those programs may get a rude awakening when they pay a visit to or, entertain their  new neighbors.
“I told our team and coaches that I like being the underdog, especially with where we are with our football program,” he said. “It would make me happy if whenever we went to play an opponent, they would say, ‘Yep, that’s a win.’ I want our kids to embrace that underdog role.
“We’re the new kids on the block in this region. Don’t expect us to come out swinging but that’s what you’re going to get; a North Central team that is going to fight.”