MATTHEWS So what do you do when you graduate 31 seniors, 16 starters and multiple All-Americans from an unbeaten state championship team?
Butler High football coach Brian Hales says the Bulldogs aren’t going to do anything different.
“I can’t worry about what everyone else is saying,” Hales said. “We’ve got our goals set, just like we do every year, and our goal is the same. Our No. 1 goal is to win a state championship. Our No. 2 goal is to win a conference championship. If we say, ‘Because all those guys graduated, we’re not going to set these things as goals,’ well, that says to the kids that we don’t have to work as hard because we’re not trying to do much.”
Butler enters the season as a co-favorite to win the Southwestern 4A, along with longtime rival Independence. The Bulldogs, however, don’t appear to be the imposing team they’ve been over the past five seasons when they’ve won 60 of 64 games, including taking three of the past four N.C. 4AA state titles.
The Bulldogs return six starters, and just two on offense. The junior varsity was strong last season. Hales is excited about the potential of his incoming freshman class. And he feels he has talent on his varsity team. It’s just largely unproven.
“Are we a finished product? Far from it,” he said. “We’ll have to work a lot harder to win games this year than last year. I still think we can compete with people.”
Among the key players this year is linebacker Isaac Stewart, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior, who had 104 tackles last season. Stewart has committed to Louisville. On the defensive line, Hales believes junior Jalen Cousar (6-0, 265) could be one of the best Butler’s ever had.
“We could play him at any position on the field, and he would be one of the best at his position,” Hales said. “He’s a great athlete and he doesn’t have the first clue how good he is.”
On offense, Butler will lean on sophomore tailback Benny LeMay (5-10, 205) and junior QB Anthony Ratliff (6-2, 190). Both players are already getting BCS recruiting attention. LeMay, the younger brother of former Butler All-American QB Christian and former All-American receiver Uriah, rushed for more than 430 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. Ratliff played more quarterback last season than Hales expected when All-American Riley Ferguson sat out about half the regular season with a hand injury.
Ratliff threw for 442 yards and ran for 281 more.
But surrounding LeMay and Ratliff will be a bunch of new faces.
“We have so many new guys having to step up,” Hales said. “They’ll get under the lights for the first time next Friday (when the Bulldogs open the season at home against West Charlotte) and we’ll learn a lot about them. We’ve got some really talented kids that played a lot last year, though, and it’s a great thing to have a quarterback that’s got some experience already.”
This young Butler team will have to deal with one of the toughest schedules in the state. After the West Charlotte game, Butler plays at Mallard Creek Aug. 30, against Greensboro Page Sept. 6, at Mount Tabor Sept. 13 and at Richmond Senior Sept. 20.
Each of those teams is a legitimate state power.
“We couldn’t get anybody to play us,” Hales said. “Look at our schedule, then look at Mallard Creek’s, or Richmond’s. We’re all having to play each other because we have a tough time finding games at this point. So do we want to play (a lot of) Super Bowls in the regular season? Not ideally, but it’s the way it is this year. It could benefit us, though, in that we’ve got to mature in a hurry, especially with the schedule being so heavy on the front side. It’s not a matter of us having new starters and being able to ease into it. They’re going to have to grow up fast.”
Hales thinks his team is up to the challenge.
“This group reminds me of our 2008 team, when we had a lot of guys graduate and no one knew Christian LeMay or Juwuan Edwards or Kris Frost and they wanted to make a name for themselves,” Hales said. “They all became big-time college players. Nobody knows this group we have now. They’re all right with it, for now, but they want people to know who they are, too, and they’ll do whatever we ask them to do to get there.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; T witter: @langstonwertzjr
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