High school football preview: Falcons have experienced offense
First in a series of reports on local high schools …
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan wasn’t a world-beater in the shortened COVID season, but the Falcons (4-4) were respectable, still in the top third in 3A.
“There wasn’t any playbook for what we went through,” West head coach Louis Kraft V said. “So it’s good to be back to normal. It’s nice to be practicing in August. There’s some normalcy for the players and coaches.”
West struggled early in the delayed 2020 season that finally got going in the spring, but the Falcons beat decent Carson, East Rowan and South Iredell teams to make a playoff appearance for the 19 straight season. They stayed in the hunt for the conference championship right down to the last quarter of the last night of the regular season at Statesville.
West’s defensive line, which subtracted massive Georgia Tech recruit Zeek Biggers as well as solid performers Ashton Matthews and James Ball, took a hit from graduation. So did the receiving corps where Andrew Kennerly and Damon Phillippe jumped from nowhere to all-county playmakers as seniors.
But the Falcons still go into a new season (it starts Aug. 20) confident they’ll be stouter than they were in April.
For one thing, Kraft now has eight head-coaching games under his belt.
For another thing, West returns its top two running backs (Akin Robinson and Cayleb Brawley), an outstanding, 300-pound two-way lineman (Josh Noble) and the county’s most experienced quarterback (Noah Loeblein). While there are holes to fill, Kraft believes West can fill them with fast, athletic guys, which is always better than filling them with small, slow guys.
Most Rowan teams graduated exceptional quarterbacks, so the seasoned Loeblein gives West an advantage. He’s taken some shots and he’s led comebacks. This will be his third season as the starter. He’s seventh on West’s all-time passing yards list and 31st on the county list with 2,446. More important than the yards, he puts the ball in the end zone. He’s thrown 28 touchdown passes.
“He’s a leader, a captain, one of the best humans that you’ll find,” Kraft said. “Its huge for us to have Noah’s experience. As a sophomore, we asked him not lose games. As a junior, we saw him go out there and win some for us. As a senior, he should light up the stat sheet and be one of the county’s top players. We’ve been fortunate at West. We’ve had some three-year quarterbacks, guys like B.J. Sherrill and Payne Stolsworth, and when we’ve had that guy, things usually have worked out well for us.”
Lucas Graham is the backup QB and has a future. Graham is a good enough athlete that West might find another spot for him to play this season.
“Loeblein didn’t get to play in the Salisbury game, so Graham started,” Kraft said. “First play was a 55-yard completion. Second play, unfortunately, he breaks his collarbone. He can sling it.”
West was pass-first in the COVID season, but Robinson and Brawley combined for 654 rushing yards and three TDs, with almost identical workloads. Loeblein is not a bad runner and the Falcons will have designed plays for him to carry the ball.
“Robinson and Brawley have had a ton of reps and they’re good players,” Kraft said. “Not burners, but great kids who get the job done.”
West’s receiving corps will be mostly young, but Garrett Fesperman and talented sprinter Peter Simpson have experience. Paxton Greene, Tanner Poole and James Francis III will be important additions. Francis’ father was a Shrine Bowl linebacker in the days when the West program turned the corner under coach Scott Young and won its first conference title in 2000.
Adrian Stockton is another name to know, as he’s the swiftest Falcon, even faster than Simpson. He’s a receiver who might shine as a kickoff and punt returner.
Ben Sweet and Jacob Perry will be used in tight end/H-back roles. Sweet caught three TD passes last season.
Left tackle Noble anchors the offensive line, which also returns right guard Brayden Haglan. Tyler Cline worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman, while Blake Rogers started about half the games at center. So it’s a pretty experienced group. Kraft is also high on a couple of large newcomers — Josh Wilson and Christian Hercules, the heavyweight wrestler.
Sweet is the punter. Veteran Juan Arteaga or Jose Hernandez will handle kicking duties.
Tim Dixon, a West assistant for 25 years, will be the defensive coordinator for the first time. Kenronte´ Walker, last year’s coordinator, found a job in Charlotte at Metroline Christian Academy, which was a much easier drive for him.
Rebuilding the defensive line will be a key to West’s success in 2021. There’s no shortage of candidates.
“Up front we had a dream situation last season with Zeek and those other good seniors,” Kraft said. “I’ve said all summer that if we can find some defensive lineman, we’ll be good.”
Quadree Ziyad might be the difference-maker on the rebuilt line. He played linebacker in 2019, but then sat out all of the COVID season following surgery to repair his shoulder.
Noble’s bulk and strong work ethic will help on the defensive line. Alijah Gray logged a lot of snaps last season, while Dayvion McHenry got some. Landon Jacobs will be making an intriguing transition from jayvee running back to varsity defensive lineman. Kraft compares Adam Coughenour to Ball, which is high praise. Kraft believes Quinton Lofton, Diontaye Montgomery and Elijah Jefferies give the Falcons three more good options. That’s eight d-linemen. They’ll sort it out.
“We go into the season with some people looking at the defensive line as our weakness,” Kraft said. “But I think it’s going to turn out to be one of our strengths.”
As far as linebackers, Canyon Turner is a returning starter. Damarion Phillips, an experienced nickel back, moves to linebacker.
Kraft identified linebacker Christian Addison as his most improved player.
“Addison had a great off-season, maybe the best of anyone in our program,” Kraft said. “He’s flying around, making plays.”
Kraft also anticipates a breakout season from Braxtyn Barger.
“Barger has really matured in the last year,” Kraft said. “Now we’ve got four good guys for three spots. This is going to be one of the fastest linebacker groups we’ve ever had.”
West will be talented in the defensive backfield. Jaedon Neal is a leader at safety — he played every defensive snap a year ago — and Nigel McManus is a returning starter at corner.
Lee Vaughters is a rangy DB with Saturday-player length if he can add some pounds. Jaden Warren, who picked off a pass in the playoffs last season, has speed and solid ball skills.
The Falcons also expect a boost in the defensive backfield from South Rowan transfer Matthew Gabriel.
Then there’s Evan Kennedy, an electric freshman back/receiver who may get the call to join the varsity sooner rather than later.
“That kid has got it,” Kraft said. “We’d like for him to get some confidence by being a jayvee superstar. But we’re not sure how long he’ll be a jayvee.”
West’s program is in good shape. Kraft said the Falcons had 91 bodies at practice on Tuesday, with at least three absent players accounted for.
“We’ve got depth everywhere,” Kraft said. “We’ve only got 55 varsity uniforms, but we’ve about 62 that could play varsity.”
Coach Joe Nixon’s five years at the helm of West Rowan’s football team didn’t quite restore the glory days, but they were stout.
The average season during his tenure was 8-5, and West won nine in 2019 by muscline perennial powers Freedom and Crest in the state playoffs.
Nixon’s teams maintained West’s reputation for toughness and togetherness and they also maintained an uninterrupted string of playoff appearances that dates back to 2002.
Now with Nixon guiding 4A neighbor Mooresville, former West tight end Louis Kraft is the new head coach and there are quite a few new staffers around him.
The young head coach will lead a young team.
“We’ve only got 11 seniors,” Kraft said. “Fortunately, all 11 will be starters or at least major contributors.”
Kraft’s coaching era will start with a loud bang — a trip to Salisbury to play a squad that was 2AA state runner-up in 2019. West never lost to a Rowan opponent in Nixon’s five seasons, but the Falcons haven’t encountered Salisbury except in scrimmages since 2014, and the Hornets are a lot different now than they were when West was smacking them around in 2014.
So West will either start the COVID season 0-1 or a glorious 1-0, depending on what happens next Friday at Ludwig Stadium. Either way it’ll be a story.
A loaded Davie team is West’s opponent in Week 2, so the fun will continue.
Kraft has experienced the same COVID guidelines headaches and weather miseries as every other head coach as he’s tried to prepare for his first season.
“The weather’s been bad enough that you’re just trying to get through the day and get to the next practice,” Kraft said. “Our practice field is a mud pit, but everyone has continued to work. No one complains. They’re all drinking the Kool-Aid.”
Kraft has found a silver lining in a long-delayed season that normally would’ve started in August.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who definitely would’ve been Thursday players (jayvee) in the fall,” Kraft said. “But now they’ve been lifting for six months and they’ve changed their bodies enough that they can help the varsity. We’ve got an awful lot of talent in our freshman and sophomore classes.”
Jalen Houston, who powered West’s offense, and Baiden Suddarth, who seemed to make half the tackles for West’s defense, are gone.
But the Falcons still have a household name in defensive lineman Zeek Biggers, the massive Georgia Tech signee. There won’t be many high school kids who will be able to block the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Biggers. Actually, two high school kids probably won’t be able to stop Biggers from disrupting offenses. Three high school kids might have a chance.
West’s offense starts with Noah Loeblein, who won the starting job as a sophomore. He threw for 1,164 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 258 yards and two scores.
“Last year Noah’s job was to manage the game and not lose it,” Kraft said. “But I have no doubt that this year he’s going to win games for us. The ball is coming out of his hand a lot better. He’s more mature. He’s more confident.”
Cayleb Brawley was in the shadow of the electrifying Houston, but he quietly turned in a terrific season that included 190 carries for 979 yards and six TDs. An ankle injury in the Crest game kept Brawley from producing a 1,000-yard season.
Akin Robinson showed flashes last season when he got carries. Powerful Michael Gonsalves, a running back who has been converted to linebacker, might be an option in goal-line situations. West used Suddarth in short-yardage situations in 2019.
The receiving corps is a bit of a mystery as the top three pass-catchers graduated. Damon Phillippe, who had eight receptions, is the only experienced returning wideout. Andrew Kennerly and Garrett Fesperman will get their chance, and Kraft is excited about the potential of Peter Williams-Simpson, who is coming back from an ACL injury.
“He might have more athletic ability than anyone on the team,” Kraft said. “With his speed, he can be that over-the-top guy for us.”
Ben Sweet and Misha Lippard lead the tight ends. West has some two-tight end sets that would make use of both of them.
“They can both catch it,” Kraft said. “They can be the best pass-catching tight ends West has had in years.”
West is famous for sturdy offensive lines. This one will be led by 300-pound left tackle Josh Noble.
“The good thing about Josh is that he’s 300, without looking like he’s 300,” Kraft said. “He’s a leader, just comes in and goes to work and helps all the young guys. If you could take a cookie cutter and make 22 of him, you’d do it in a heartbeat. I believe he’ll blow up this season and be recruited by a lot of schools.”
It will be a young group, as West graduated a herd of experienced offensive linemen.
Parker Safley will be the center. Alijiah Gray bullied opponents in jayvee competition, and he’s being counted on. Tyler Cline, a freshman, is one of those players Kraft was talking about that wouldn’t have been ready in August, but now he could be.
Defensively, the Falcons should be very good.
It starts on the defensive line with Biggers, obviously, but Ashton Matthews and James Ball also have plenty of experience.
“We’ve got three we know will be good,” Kraft said. “We’re still deciding on that fourth one.”
Noble and Gray likely will see some duty on defense.
The 215-pound Gonzalves will be a key to the defense as the middle linebacker.
He was West’s workhorse ballcarrier early in 2019. He had 91 carries for 371 yards in West’s first four games when a knee injury ended his season.
“The move to defense is a good one for him,” Kraft said. “That’s where we need him most, and he’s a better college prospect as a linebacker than as a running back.”
Qadree Ziyad, a 205-pound linebacker, earned accolades in a showcase camp, and is talented.
Nathaniel Estrada was undersized playing inside in 2019 and will shift to outside linebacker as a senior.
The secondary starters are expected to be Nigel McManus and Martrez Smith at the corners and Hunter Watts and Jaedon Neal at the safeties.
“Watts has made some of the biggest strides of any our guys since last season,: Kraft said.
Juan Arteaga is expected to handle kicking duties. Sweet is a good punter, but Kraft is hopeful one of the soccer guys will be able to handle that job, so Sweet can focus on tight end.
The offensive line and defensive backfield are where most of the new faces will be. It those position groups come through, West should be tough to beat again.
“If we run it right, we can sustain the success,” Kraft said. “We want to hang a conference banner and we want to take care of Rowan County. West has been kings of the county for a while.”
While it seemed like this season would never get here, West Rowan at Salisbury right off the bat figures to make it worth the wait.
“We’re on the doorstep of our season now,” Kraft said. “And that’s exciting.”
West Rowan schedule
Feb. 26 …. at Salisbury
March 5 … at Davie
March 12 …. East Rowan
March 19 … at South Iredell
March 26 … North Iredell
April 2 …. Carson
April 9 …. at Statesville
WEST ROWAN FOOTBALL
Coach: Louis Kraft (2nd year, 4-4)
2020 record: 4-4 (4-1 North Piedmont Conference, 2nd)
New conference (2021-25): South Piedmont Conference, with Carson, East Rowan, South Rowan, Concord, NW Cabarrus, Central Cabarrus (Lake Norman Charter doesn’t play football)
2020 ranking in state: 119th out of 405
2020 ranking in 3A: 37th out of 109
Playoffs: Lost at A.C. Reynolds, 1st round