In his five years coaching football at Charlotte Christian, this is Jason Estep's most inexperienced team. The Knights (6-5, 0-3 CISAA) return just seven starters from the team that lost in the state semifinals last year to Providence Day, 28-14.
"We've got some athletes, so that's good," said Estep. "We've got some guys that are working extremely hard. Our big thing is we're really young. ... We could have a lot of sophomores, a lot of juniors, a couple of seniors and even some freshmen on both sides of the ball, so this is a little different than what we've had in the past."
The faces won't be the only thing new on the offensive side of the ball. After running a wide-open spread offense for several years under Estep, the Knights will run a more balanced offense this year, relying more on running and pocket passing.
The style should fit junior quarterback Eric Lynch (6-foot-1, 170 pounds), who will be the starter this year after coming in midway through last season to replace an injured Simms McElfresh (Appalachian State).
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"If you, say, classify Eric Lynch as a quarterback, I'm going to say that he's more of a pocket passer, drop-back passer," said Estep. "He's got the arm strength to make the deep throws so we feel that he's better suited for that."
The new offense will also feature sophomore running back Bo Hines, starting junior varsity quarterback last year who played in the backfield in Christian's playoff game.
"I don't want to say we're going to be more traditional, because we still have some spread looks in there, but we're going to be a team that we hope can establish running the football, which is going to set up our passing game and allow our defense to stay off the field," said Estep.
The new offense means Christian will have a fullback, a position junior Jake Cook most likely will fill.
With all-state receiver Matthias Farley (Notre Dame) gone, along with Garrett Honeycutt (Campbell), sophomore returning starter Jeb Blazevich will lead the receiving corps. He'll be joined by seniors Sam Dexter and Will Grigg.
Three of the Knights' returning starters are on the offensive line: junior Matt Simmons (6-foot, 205 pounds) and seniors Mike Jones (6-foot, 175 pounds) and Jay Patterson (6-foot-4, 245 pounds).
With such a young offense, installing a new offense hasn't been easy, but Estep thinks it will help the program in the future.
The defense is also inexperienced, with just three returning starters.
Returning defensive backs junior Desmond Lawrence and Grigg will be key in the secondary.
Cook also will bolster the linebackers with sophomore Luke Dexter.
The defense will miss Kyler Brown, an all-state defensive end/linebacker who will be a freshman linebacker at Duke this year. Junior defensive end Adrian Robinson will be the lone returning starter on the defensive line.
A definite strength for the Knights is the kicking game, led by junior kicker Wes Medeiros, who will be entering his third year as a starter. Estep said he can kick the ball into the end zone regularly on kickoffs and has more distance on his field goals.
Despite his team's youth and inexperience, Estep said, his team is moving in the right direction. In what could turn out to be a wide-open private school league this year, the Knights are gunning for a state title.
"I feel like our program the last five years has been successful, so our goal is to win a state championship regardless of our youth," said Estep. "It doesn't matter who we have in here, if you're 14 or 18 years old, our goal is to win a state championship, and I think over the last five years we've proven that, year in and year out, you've got to expect that we're going to compete for that every year."