Until somebody beats Hillside, the winner of 23 straight conference games, the Hornets will remain the clear favorite to win another PAC-6 title.
Hillside has 16 starters returning from last year’s 8-3 (6-0 PAC) team.
Hornets head coach Antonio King says that if anyone wanted to defeat Hillside, last year was their best chance. Things are different now.
“We’re glad to accept the burden that everyone wants to put a target on our backs,” King said. “We think we have enough talent to challenge any team in the state.”
Junior quarterback Naszir Forte-Ferguson will have plenty of support in 2013. Hillside’s entire front line is back, except for conference offensive lineman of the year Javien Knight.
When not handing off to Donte Thomas Williams – who has offers from Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame and West Virginia – Forte-Ferguson’s chief passing target is likely to be multipurpose back and receiver Trevion Thompson, an Under Armour All-American who is being courted by the likes of Clemson, N.C. State and North Carolina.
Hillside’s nine returning starters on defense include PAC-6 defensive lineman of the year, Khalen Howard.
With nine years at Hillside, six of those as head coach, King is the dean of PAC-6 coaches. Riverside’s David Hackney, heading into his third season as head coach, is the second most-seasoned. Jordan’s LeDwaun Harrison is in his second year. Northern, Person and East Chapel Hill all have first-year coaches.
Now that Hillside archrival Southern Durham has moved over to the new Big Eight Conference, Northern Durham would appear to be the No. 1 contender to beat the champs. The Knights went 6-5 overall, 4-2 in conference games last year, and they were in the title hunt until the last week of the season.
The Knights will miss running quarterback Brandon Brown and all-conference tailback Kylyn Flemming, not to mention three all-conference offensive linemen. Alphonso Gbojueh, who split time in the backfield with Flemming last year, should get a lot more carries this season.
Northern’s real strength should be on defense, where it has five potential all-conference players returning from a squad that gave up 14.8 points per conference game in 2012.
“Before Hillside, Northern was the giant on top of the conference until someone knocked us down,” first-year Northern coach R.J. Wilson said. “It’s time to get back up there. That’s an attainable goal.”
Based upon three straight years of consistent improvement under coach Bill Renner that includes last year’s playoff appearance, East Chapel Hill was tabbed by several area coaches as the team most likely to upset Hillside. But that was before Renner took his five-wide passing attack to Northwood.
First-year East head coach Jon Sherman plans a bit more balanced offense, led by sophomore quarterback Connor Stough. Powerful running back Colby Owens, one of the Triangle’s best players, provides a good ground game and leads an improved East squad on defense, along with returning all-conference tackle Chris Alston.
Person’s first-year head coach David Kleine likewise advocates balance. His big challenge will be depth; some of his returning all-conference players, like safety Marquis Torain and defensive end LeRon Cash, will be needed on both sides of the ball.
Now more settled in at Jordan, Harrison feels the Falcons have learned from last year’s fractious start, where they lost seven straight in midseason and finished 2-9, 0-6 in conference games.
“They are a lot further along now than last year’s group,” he said.
Jordan’s best feature should be its line; it returns four down linemen who fronted returning quarterback Matthew Gampe: Aaron Rhames, Julian Humes, Grant Swigart and Aaron Harris.
Riverside’s Hackney believes one thing is paramount to avoid a repeat of his team’s 1-9 finish last year: “Not turning the ball over.”
Riverside has 13 starters back, and Hackney believes they’ll play solid defense this year, led by all-conference tackle Patrick Volk and all-conference defensive backs Stephan Jacobs and Cameron Roane.
Riverside running back Joel Evans will be asked to fill the void left by all-purpose player Darius Smiley’s graduation.