Vance football will rely on many fresh faces as it seeks to compete in the new MECKA 4A conference.
To stay competitive, the Cougars have to find ways to quickly fill in the voids left after graduating 30 players, including Division I talent in Larenz Bryant (South Carolina) and Jalen Latter (Wake Forest).
“It’s almost a new team,” said Vance football coach Keith Wilkes. “We have to take the kids we’ve got and build them up slowly. It’s a process, especially when we have so many young kids.”
Vance does return all-conference tight end Trey Foggie and lineman Chris Brown to provide leadership.
Foggie, the only returner to catch passes for more than 200 yards in 2012, is one of the team’s only skill-position players coming back on offense from last season’s 9-4 team. Vance lost last year’s starting quarterback, running back and receivers.
Brown, who has an offer from the Charlotte 49ers, will anchor the offensive line at guard while also starting at defensive end. His 6-foot-4, 280-pound frame should give the Cougars a much-needed boost on both sides of the ball.
Senior Dwight Young, a three-year starter at center, will solidify the Vance front line. He will also play outside linebacker.
Classmate Kydrian Green, a 5-foot-8, 200-pounder who rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns last fall, returns at fullback and also is expected to play linebacker. Seniors Christian Hatcher and Barry Gray, who likely will play defensive back and wide receiver, could have big years for the Cougars as well.
Wilkes said he expects this year’s graduating class will not shy away from assuming bigger roles on the team.
“The seniors know it’s the end of the road for them,” he said. “They know they’ve definitely got to put up or go home.”
“We have no choice but to step up more,” Hatcher said.
Wilkes said he hopes his younger players will grow up early in the year and take some pressure off his experienced returning players, especially the “ironmen” who are playing both ways to start the year.
“We’ve got some good numbers,” the second-year Cougars coach said. “It’s just a matter of having those young kids catch up and getting in full swing.”
With a nonconference schedule that opens against Phillip O. Berry Academy and Richmond County, Wilkes said he thinks the Cougars will have an early barometer of what they will need to work on before entering MECKA 4A Conference play in late September.
“We’ve got really good athletes,” said Wilkes. “They just have to get that experience through playing. … We’ve got to come together as a group and play hard.”
Despite their youth, the Cougars aren’t lowering their standards, aiming to push rival Mallard Creek, Hough and others for one of the top spots in the league and return to the postseason.
“Our goal is to have a great season,” said Brown. “We had a good season last year, but our expectation is to top that record and go further in the playoffs.”