After three consecutive state championships, the Havelock Rams enter the 2014 season with inexperienced players in the backfield and secondary.
But that doesn’t mean the players and Coach Jim Bob Bryant think a fourth straight title is out of reach.
“That will be our goal every year no matter what kids we have coming through the program,” Bryant said of winning the state title. “On paper, we look pretty good. We don’t go into any game thinking that we’re going to keep it close and try to win it at the end. We’re going into every game expecting to win.
“I heard a coach the other day on TV say that they hoped to finish in the middle of the conference. I don’t care who I’ve got, that’s not what we’re hoping for. We’re hoping to win every game we play. If you hope for anything less than that, I think you’re selling the kids short.”
The Rams went 16-0 last year and have gone 47-1 in their three state title seasons. While they will have to replace some key players from last season, the Rams have a junior varsity team that hasn’t lost in three seasons.
Perhaps Havelock’s biggest losses from last year are Derrell Scott and Taylor Woods, who combined for 3,157 yards rushing and 39 touchdowns a year ago for an offense that averaged 42.6 points per game. Both are playing this year in college.
“It’s going to be tough to replace two guys who were as productive as they were,” Bryant said. “Derrell’s the all-time leading rusher in school history, and I think Taylor is fourth. But, we’ve got some real good young kids back there.”
Bryant will look to sophomore Montrece Gatling (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) and sophomore Tony Sharpe (5-8, 180), who both played on the junior varsity a year ago, to fill the tailback role. Bryant said he expects junior Donte Stackhouse (5-9, 200) to get some carries from the fullback spot, and receivers Micheal Bowman (6-0, 195), Matt Boykin (5-5, 150) and Trey Owens (5-9, 160) may also get involved in the running game.
“On paper, we’re going to throw the ball a lot more,” Bryant said. “But I know that if you can run the football, you can control the game and control the clock. We still want to be a smash-mouth football team and be able to run the ball downhill. It will just be a variety of players from a variety of positions on the field doing it.”
Where Bryant doesn’t have question marks is at quarterback and receiver. Senior Travis Sabdo (6-1, 175) returns after throwing for 2,458 yards with 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions last season.
“He did a good job last year as a junior,” Bryant said. “He’s taken on more of a leadership role for us this year.
“This will be the first time after a state championship that we’ll have our quarterback coming back, so it’s good on the quarterback coach, which is me. I don’t have to teach someone a whole new scheme.”
Bowman, who has committed to play at South Carolina in college, had 52 catches for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns last season to lead three returning receivers. Boykin caught 41 balls for 661 yards and 13 touchdowns, while junior Kyran Bowman (6-2, 170) totaled 25 catches for 538 yards and eight touchdowns. They anchor the receiving corps that will also see Jordan Begley (6-2, 200) enter the game as a fourth receiver in certain offensive sets.
And the Rams also have experience on the offensive line in returners Martez Morris (5-11, 265), Jaquan Godette (6-3, 240) and Mark George (6-2, 210). Junior Timmy Martin (6-0, 235) is up from the junior varsity team, while Justin Wears (6-2, 215) and Zach Vernier (5-9, 180) will look to replace three-year starter Michael Howard at center.
“Replacing Michael Howard, a three-year starter, he was the smallest lineman we’ve ever had, but he was as good as any lineman we’ve ever had,” Bryant said. “Those two guys have big shoes to fill.”
Defensively, Havelock lost its top overall tackler in Andrew Ramirez, its top tackler on the defensive line in Maurice Harris and all four players in the secondary from a unit that gave up just 6.6 points per game a year ago. Bryant said Havelock’s strength is in its linebackers, led by junior standout Keion Joyner (6-3, 205). Joyner, being recruited by just about every major college football program in the country, was third on the team last year with 108 tackles with 7 1/2 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
He’ll have help at linebacker from returners Joey Godette (5-11, 185) and Andrew Vanover (5-11, 200). Fellow returner Anthony Fisher (5-9, 185) had surgery over the summer and is expected back in October. But, Juan Gamez (5-11, 185), Kendall Frazier (5-9, 185), Shondel Granison (6-3, 195) and Gabriel Munoz (5-8, 185) can all fill in at linebacker until Fisher returns, Bryant said.
“We’ve got eight really good linebackers,” he said. “They can all play. We’re trying to figure out a way to get all those kids on the field. You can’t play an eight-linebacker set.”
Senior Billy Watkins (5-11, 240) returns to the defensive line, while Destin Flloyd (6-1, 260), Granison and Jaquan Godette may also see time up front.
Gatling, Owens, Austin Ellington (5-10, 175) and Taron Wallace (5-9, 175) are new starters in the secondary, with Boykin and the Bowman brothers likely to see some spot play in the back.
“There’s all new guys in the secondary, talented, but all new,” Bryant said.
Havelock returns kicker Dylan Baker (5-9, 150) and punter Dejohn McCullough (5-9, 160), with Begley serving as the long snapper. Boykin, Micheal Bowman and Dallas Frazier (5-10, 165) will return kicks.
“Special teams are the third part of the game that we’ve excelled at over the last several years,” Bryant said. “That can win or lose a football game.”
Havelock’s non-conference schedule includes Friday’s opener at home against Washington, followed by New Bern, Jones Senior, Kinston and Northside. Bryant sees a competitive Coastal 3A Conference slate.
“I think there’s probably going to be a lot of parity in the conference,” he said. “A couple of teams we don’t know anything about because they’ve got new coaches. West Craven and Jacksonville, those have been our toughest opponents the last few years in the conference, and West Carteret says they’ve got the fastest team they’ve ever had, so maybe that will be a challenge this year.”
Bryant is quick to credit assistant coaches Caleb King, Kenny Frazier, Chris Crowe, Mitch Williams, Bob Sabdo, Matt Handley, Shane Williams and Anthony Wray for the team’s success. He said the players are excited about the challenge of chasing a fourth consecutive state championship, as evidence by attendance at summer workout sessions and their effort in preseason practices.
“We ask a lot out of them,” Bryant said. “But what we always say is that if you’re not working, your competitors are working and eventually they’re going to come and beat you. So, we take everything one game at a time and one practice at a time. We’re just trying to get better each practice, and the kids have responded well to the challenge.”