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BAILEY — Much cooler temperatures and a slight breeze greeted prospective Southern Nash High football players on the second of six mandatory conditioning practices Friday morning, making for a good vibe all around the practice field.
The Firebirds, most of whom have been at it all spring and summer, moved with familiarity, if not precision, through the drills under the watchful eyes of head coach Brian Foster and his staff — Robbie Kennedy, Brian Batchelor, Kwamaine Battle, Brian Rice, Jordan Bass, Sterling Leonard, Adam Monts de Oca and Zack Foster. Brian Foster, entering his 22nd season as head coach, said there were 50 varsity candidates and 42 on junior varsity, which means that for yet another season, overall numbers won’t be a concern for him.
While Foster eschews the notion that the Firebirds reload each season — because he sees up close the amount of work that has gone into their success — Southern Nash is positioned to once again be the team to beat in the 3-A Big East Conference. The Firebirds have gone 34-4 over the past three seasons, including a 15-0 mark in conference play, and, with the number of returning players, certainly are in position to put up those types of numbers again.
Returning starters on offense are senior quarterback Matt Foster and senior wingback Quinton Cooley, as well as four offensive linemen — the most the Firebirds have had on the line in a number of years.
Cooley is the centerpiece of the double-wing attack, having run for 1,756 yards and 30 touchdowns last fall, including a school-record 403 yards in the Firebirds’ upset loss against Eastern Alamance in the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs. The 5-foot-8, 193-pound senior has committed to Wake Forest University.
Foster, the head coach’s son, has returned with a noticeably chiseled physique. He threw for 362 years and eight TDs with just two interceptions in 40 attempts last season. Foster proved to be a rushing threat as well with 288 yards and four TDs in his 43 carries.
Returning on the line are senior guard Zach Baker, senior tight end Daniel Batchelor, senior center Luke Watson and senior Jordan Sam. While Brian Foster is delighted to have returning starters on the offensive line — after starting from scratch each of the past three seasons — he reminds that the Firebirds will be without three-year starting wingback Zonovan “Bam” Knight, who set career and single-season rushing records last season. Knight, who averaged 16.6 yards per carry on his way to 2,054 yards, is trying to work his way into the starting lineup at North Carolina State University.
“I think having a quarterback back definitely helps,” Brian Foster said. “Having a running back back that understands the system helps and, by far, this is the most linemen we’ve had back. I think that could be a positive, but then you lose a kid like ‘Bam’ that was so good at making people miss and creating big plays. But if you’re not going to have that, you want some of the better linemen back and we have that.”
While Cooley, who ran for most of his 403 yards versus Eastern Alamance with Knight sidelined with an ankle injury, has proven that he can carry the Southern Nash offense, the double-wing relies on an ever-changing point of attack. Thus, plugging in a suitable replacement for Knight is a priority.
Brian Foster said that will likely be a committee situation at the outset of the season with senior Jason Bland, senior Izaiah Walker-Warren, junior Jalen McClaston and sophomore Jackson Vick taking reps. Senior Zachary Jones will move into the fullback slot while 2018 starter Daylon Whitley will transition to defense.
The Firebirds defense also has a handful of starters back, including senior tackle Devonte Edmundson, senior middle linebacker Cameron Thompson and senior Xavier Burgess, now at outside linebacker after playing corner last season.
Whitley, a senior, will take the other middle linebacker spot in the Firebirds’ 4-4 alignment while Vick, who was offered a scholarship by UNC Charlotte this past spring, will play cornerback.
However, Brian Foster was hesitant when asked if he would have many two-way starters.
“Maybe,” he said. “We’ve got 22 different starters but we’ll have to play some both ways sometimes.”
That underscores his — and any high school coach’s — biggest concern going into the season: Depth. The Firebirds had to deal with a multitude of injuries in 2018 after being reasonably devoid of them for the past two years, but Foster knows that injuries are the norm.
“You’re always going to have injuries, but you hate to have them in the same position,” he said.
Thus, he’s cautiously optimistic about Southern Nash’s depth.
“I think there’s places where we’re good and places where, if we lose one, we’re in bad shape — just like every other high school football team,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re good, but I thought we were good at defensive end last year but we lost a defensive end and his backup in one game!”
The Firebirds will participate in the Muddy Water Jamboree on Wednesday, Aug. 14, at Smithfield-Selma, then launch their 2019 season at home Friday, Aug. 23, against Warren County.