So, North Caroline High’s entire starting backfield from a year ago — quarterback Casey Byrd and running backs Ryan Bauer, Joe Bildstein and Will Manship — has graduated.
That alone might have an opponent or two thinking maybe, just maybe, the Bulldogs won’t be so tough this year.
Longtime head coach James McCormick struggled to suppress a slight chuckle at the notion.
“That would be great,” McCormick said at the idea of someone underestimating his team. “We know people aren’t going to take us lightly. We’ve got a good football team, with a very experienced senior group of good kids, hard-nosed kids. This is a very strong group of seniors and we expect big things from them.”
And why not?
The Bulldogs have gone 42-6 over the past four years, which includes three 10-0 regular seasons, a 38-2 slate against Bayside Conference schools, one Class 2A East Region title, and two other regional final appearances. They return a senior offensive line that could be one of the conference’s best, and a defense anchored by two of the area’s top defensive ends, Kendron Wayman, whose verbally committed to Wake Forest University, and Carlton Johnson.
McCormick and staff aren’t likely to let their team’s ego get too inflated, but a fifth consecutive trip to the 2A East playoffs is well within reach, even with the state’s newly expanded eight-team regional format this season.
“Obviously the goal is to get in the playoffs,” said McCormick, whose team went 11-1 last season, the lone loss coming to Elkton in the region final. “I’m hoping we can accomplish that and then we’re going to try and compete for a region title.”
Offensively that starts with an all-senior interior front, that returns all but one starter from a year ago. Back are center Jody Ward (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), right guard Matt Good (5-8, 160), right tackle Nick Belay (6-0, 250), and left guard Dylan Bunce (6-1, 225), who are joined by left tackle Ryan Blunt (6-0, 200). Added power is provided by senior tight ends Johnson (5-11, 180) and Dustin Blizzard (6-5, 215).
“We have what we think is a very strong offensive line,” McCormick said. “Everybody is back from last year. Kids are athletic, physical, and they know what they’re supposed to be doing. So we’re hoping the offensive line gives these guys opportunities to get some running lanes.”
Running through those lanes will be senior halfbacks Montreyse Deshields and Hunter Healy, senior fullback Trenton Hillard, and backups Zamir Dennis (Sr., halfback) and Ethan Dvorack (Jr., fullback).
“It’s reload,” McCormick said. “These are all good football players. We had very good football players in the backfield last year. These guys are right there with them. They got a lot of playing time and it’s their opportunity. And they’re ready to make the most of it.
“They’re really kind of carbon copies of the kids we had last year,” McCormick continued. “Good, tough, hard-nosed kids. Our thing is we’re going to run the ball and play action off of it.”
Senior lacrosse standout Wyatt LaClair is at quarterback and will have his eyes on senior wide receiver Jason Brown when he goes to the airways.
“Wyatt’s doing great,” McCormick said. “He’s making good decisions. He’s running the offense, controlling things, throwing good balls. Kid’s got good game presence. He’s a heckuva lacrosse player. That spacial awareness and field presence from lacrosse he brings to football.”
Opponents will want to be aware of Wayman’s whereabouts when Caroline trots its defense onto the field. The 6-3, 240-pound senior won the 2A state shot put and discus championships in May, and figures to be throwing blockers out of his path en route to whoever has the ball. And while Johnson doesn’t have Wayman’s brawn, his quickness makes him tough to occupy.
“Those two kids are bookends,” McCormick said. “I feel their two of the best defensive ends in the Bayside.”
McCormick plans on using 20 players on offense and defense through the season, and will rotate a number of players on the defensive line to keep starting tackles Bunce and junior Ty Farmer (5-11, 190) fresh. Sophomore Owen Doyle (5-10, 180) and Hillard man the inside linebacker spots, with Deshields and senior Rhian Silsley (5-9, 150) roaming outside. The corners look solid with senior Mike Stumpf and Dennis, while Brown starts at free safety with Alex Walstrum playing backup.
“I think we look pretty strong,” McCormick said. “We’ve got a lot of kids back from last year on that defense. We’ve got a lot of other kids that can play in those spots, and are going to play. So we’ve got pretty good depth and I think that will help as the season goes on.
“I like where we are defensively,” he added. “Obviously we’ve got to work at getting better at certain things but the foundations are pretty strong.”
Junior Kyler Boyd punts and kicks off, while classmate Chris Curler earned the place-kicking job.
“We’ve had some good scrimmages,” McCormick said. “I like where we are. Obviously you’ve got work, things you need to clean up and get better at, but right now I think we’re off to a good start.”
North Caroline is scheduled to start Friday at 6:30 p.m., when it hosts Parkside in a rematch of last year’s 2A East semifinal, which ended with a 41-27 Bulldogs victory.