PIGSKIN PREVIEW: Panthers looking to continue improvement
By Jake Keator
The Daily Reflector
Friday, August 23, 2019
North Pitt head football coach Greg Watford spent the majority of his first season in Bethel assessing what tools he had to work with, followed by beginning to enact a total overhaul of the team's culture.
In the process, he watched a seniors fall away, while younger players stepped up looking for their opportunity to hit the field. Unfortunately, this led to the second consecutive 1-10 season for the Panthers, but Watford became the first coach in four years to make it to a second season.
In year two, NP should make a big leap forward, as the vast majority of the team returns for another season. This should allow for Watford and his coaching staff to continue to refine the flex-bone offense that kept them competitive with some of the top teams in the state last season.
"We had played Kinston, which was the second-best team in the state to a 0-0 draw with four minutes remaining in the first half," Watford said. "We actually set a record against Hertford County. We held them to their lowest yardage in a half - they only had 108 yards - and they beat us 45-0."
Watford also said the Panthers will field a junior varsity team for the full season. The squad grew to have enough members near the end of last season, giving Watford a reserve to pull from should he need it.
The schedule does no favors for the Panthers this season, as NP will face Kinston, Greene Central, South Central and East Wake as part of its non-conference schedule. NP kicks off the season tonight when it hosts Washington.
Head Coach: Greg Watford (second year) 1-10
Coaching staff: Larry Edwards, Quincy McKinney, Bladen Gatling, Mike Dail, Ridge Simmons
Last year's record: 1-10, 1-4 2-A Eastern Plains Conference
Conference finish: Fifth
Playoff result: Missed playoffs
Junior Alex Espinosa-Johnson will once again be the man in charge of a fast-paced, misdirection-based offense. Watford praised Espinosa-Johnson for his ability to grasp the offense quickly, though the intricacies involved with it took more time to develop throughout the season. He added that Espinosa-Johnson's work ethic has paid off over the summer, putting him in great shape to play both quarterback and linebacker.
"Alex is Alex," Watford said. "He's always steady. He's worked hard in the weight room, worked on his speed and is throwing the ball really well."
Sophomore running back Raheem Jones is poised for yet another strong season. As a freshman, Jones stood out due to his sheer athleticism and physical running style. He also showcased his hands as a pass-catching back.
"Raheem is just a phenominal athlete," Watford said of Jones. "He's a young kid, so as young kids go, he's playful and we have to sometimes get him focused. This year, he has a renewed energy. We're going to really feature him running the ball. He's gained about 10 pounds, so we're excited about him and all our guys."
Steven Carroll, who lined up at defensive line, has improved and has moved to the offense, where he will spend more time at receiver. Watford said that Carroll has dropped nearly 30 pounds from 238 to 208. At 6-3, Carroll could become the go-to option when Espinosa-Johnson decides to sling the ball.
QB Alex Espinosa-Johnson
RB Raheem Jones
C Nyheim Pettaway
LB Daquan Wood
Much like the offense, the Panthers defense spent the majority of last season learning and refining its skills in a new system, but not everything was bad.
NP's defense did show that it could hang with some of the top schools, including Kinston. As Watford noted, the Panthers held the Vikings to a scoreless draw until four minutes remained in the first half, at which point the superior depth of the Vikings overwhelmed the group. They also provided a second half shutout of Greene Central, though they lost the contest 14-8.
This season, the group is more experienced, and Watford pointed out that the unit has spent a majority of its free time together in the weight room.
Ti'shawn Spence returns for his senior season and has also undergone a position change. After lining up at defensive end last season, Spence has moved to middle linebacker, but it is possible he also will spend time on the edge, rushing the quarterback when needed. Also coming back is 6-6, 210-pound defensive tackle Romus Lee. The potential combination of Lee, Spence and Carroll could become a formidable group on the line as the season develops.
LB Ti'shawn Spence
DT Romus Lee
DT Nyheim Pettaway
DB Nas Staton
With the graduation of last season's punter/kicker Chris Hardee, special teams positions are up for grabs. Bryan Jones and Shyheim Suggs are in the running to take over punting duties. It is a three-way competition for kicking duties between Jones, Juqual Human and Hardees' younger brother, Brandon.
Contact Jake Keator at email@example.com, 252-329-9594 and follow @JakeKeatorDR on Twitter.