East Mecklenburg coach Jeremy Buck, a former fullback at Chapel Hill High recruited to play at Elon, is not a small man.
Standing on the East Meck field between his offensive line, however, the 5-foot-10 Buck looks tiny.
It's behind that massive line that Buck, in his second year coaching the Eagles, hopes to lead his team out of the bottom half of the Southwestern 4A.
A year of experience and running spring and summer workouts leading up to the season this year should also help.
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"It's just good to feel at home," said Buck, who was hired last June - just one day before offseason workouts began. "I felt like I was in an apartment last year, and now I feel like I'm living in a house."
At the beginning of last season, there were 48 players in the East Meck football program, due in large part to redistricting and the opening of Rocky River High. This year, the program has 90 players. But more players doesn't necessarily mean more experience.
"We're still going to be extremely, extremely young. I know that's hard to believe, but we might be a little younger this year than we were last year," said Buck.
The current roster has only 12 seniors. Buck expects four or five of them to start in the season opener. "We've got a lot of juniors and sophomores that are going to be playing that weren't playing last year."
Despite the Eagles' youth, Buck expects extra work this spring and summer will help East Meck improve on last year's 2-9 (2-5 Southwestern 4A) finish.
"I put something out in the weight room kind of reminding us of how bad we took some beatings last year," said Buck. "We certainly want to give ourselves a chance to win, and we made so many mistakes last year that were just youthful mistakes. Hopefully with a year of experience we're going to overcome some of those problems."
Buck's biggest source of pride this year is the big boys on the line.
The Eagles lost one starter: Michael Boykin, who transferred to Butler. Junior Kris Brown (6-foot-2, 310 pounds) returns at right tackle, and junior Demarcus Cuthbertson (5-foot-11, 270 pounds) will come back after starting the final game last year at center. Junior left guard Delano Cunningham (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) got the start after last year's Independence game and is expected to start again, and sophomore Chasz Cosby (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) and junior Dio Protopapadakisi (6-foot-2, 285 pounds) will compete for the left-tackle spot.
The newcomer on the line is 6-foot-5, 320-pound sophomore Rashad Lewis, who wasn't even on the team last year.
"I spotted him in the hall, and he's the biggest rascal I've seen in the hallways," said Buck. "He was really, really weak, but we got him into the weight room."
Buck likes to run the ball, and sophomore Lawrence Pittman is the projected starter in the backfield. Pittman didn't play last year but proved a lot in the spring and summer, said Buck. Senior Jacques Ikolo and sophomore Isaiah Stone might also get carries this year.
The Eagles will have a solid receiving corps, led by 6-foot-5 senior Sam Shisso, who committed recently to Miami of Ohio.
"Sam's a great kid. We're excited about what he's going to be able to provide us this year, offensively and leadership-wise," said Buck. "And he's just a great kid to look up to. I look up to the kid."
Senior Sport Frazier will provide a deep threat for East Meck this year after missing last season with a nagging back injury.
The quarterback position isn't any more settled this year than last. Tennant Gardner started last year but was replaced by Jerrin Morrison before the Myers Park game, the Eagles' first win of the season. When Morrison didn't return to the team this year, Buck had for a replacement.
"We've got to re-teach quarterbacks and kind of start from ground zero," said Buck.
The likely starter is junior Tyler Mayes, who worked with the team over the spring. Incoming freshman Laquell Thames also will be competing for the starting spot.
Buck said the defense played a little too aggressively last year. With a lack of experience, the Eagles had to take risks to get stops. Now the coach hopes his defense can play smarter. "We're not going to be very big, but dadgummit, we better be pretty fast," he said.
Junior Drew Barrett will be on the defensive line with senior Drevon Warrior, who didn't play last year, and Cosby. The linebacker corps will be experienced, with three-year starters Ikolo and senior Antonio Crosby. Sophomore Isaiah Stone will also see time at linebacker, and junior Jamal Sinclair will move between safety and outside linebacker.
Junior Ahmek Henry played most of last year with a separated shoulder but had surgery in the offseason and should be in the secondary for the Eagles this fall. Junior Richie Pharr, who had the interception against Myers Park to seal the win last year, will also be in the secondary.
Returning junior Justin Adams likely will play corner, and junior James Kotay and senior Keyshawn Logan also will see time at defensive back.
Buck said he knows it's hard to take a team from the bottom of the SW4A to the top, but with a year of experience and hard work in the offseason, the coach thinks the Eagles can be a factor in the conference.
"We expect to be more competitive," said Buck. "We expect to compete in the top half of the conference, and that's what these kids have worked so hard for, what these coaches have worked so hard for this summer. ... We don't want to go in and just be happy to be in the football games, we want to go in and win the football games."