10 burning questions for the 2018 high school football season

Mallard Creek head coach Mike Palmieri and his team kick off the season against nationally ranked Dutch Fork and former Independence coach Tom Knotts next month.
Mallard Creek head coach Mike Palmieri and his team kick off the season against nationally ranked Dutch Fork and former Independence coach Tom Knotts next month. WWW.MICZEKPHOTO.COM

High school football practice officially begins Monday in North Carolina. South Carolina teams begin Friday, getting a head start. Here are 10 burning questions about the upcoming season.

1. What are the three games I can’t miss early this season?

Harding features running back/linebacker Quavaris Crouch (27), who may be the nation’s best high school football player. Jeff Siner

Wow, let’s start with the first week of the season. On Aug. 17, N.C. 3A state public school champ Charlotte Catholic visits N.C. Division I private school champ Charlotte Christian. That same night, Harding, the reigning N.C. 4A champ, debuts at burgeoning state power Hough. Harding features running back/linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who may be the nation’s best high school football player.

The next night, Aug. 18, two nationally ranked teams — N.C. 4AA runner-up Mallard Creek and S.C. 5A state champ Irmo Dutch Fork — play at Memorial Stadium.

How’s that for a start to your season?

2. Give me three breakout stars to watch for.

Kannapolis Brown quarterback Jordan Medley: Kid has good size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), a good arm and speed. He’ll lead an offense that averaged 408 yards per game last season. Brown returns seven starters from a 10-3 team. Brown has won 29 games in three seasons. Medley and the Wonders are ready to break out in 2018.

Charlotte Catholic defensive end Nick King: King sat out his junior season when he transferred from Providence, per state rules. But he’s set for a huge senior season and has already committed to the University of Richmond. He’s part of a loaded Catholic team that returns eight defensive starters.

East Lincoln wide receiver Sidney Dollar: His brother, Cameron, once caught seven touchdown passes in a half and ended up doing a live interview on ESPN. Sidney (6-5, 200) missed most of his junior season with injury, but he has received some Division I basketball offers. We suspect he’ll have more in football by November.

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3. Which teams are on the way up?

The Butler Bulldogs have 14 starters back, including quarterback Christian Peters (3) and N.C. State recruit Keyone Lesane, his top receiver. Jeff Siner

Let’s start with Alexander Central. After five straight losing seasons from 2011-15, the Cougars have won 17 games the past two seasons, including going 10-2 last season. This year, coach Butch Carter returns 12 starters in a bid to repeat as conference champion.

Butler didn’t win double-digit games last season for the first time since 2004. Don’t expect a repeat. The Bulldogs have 14 starters back, including QB Christian Peters and N.C. State recruit Keyone Lesane, his top receiver.

Hough has 35 lettermen, 16 starters and six Division I recruits returning. Bonus, kicker Cam Lewis, committed to Minnesota, will give the Huskies a kicking weapon many elite teams don’t always have.

4. Will potentially not playing a full schedule hurt Charlotte Christian’s repeat state title bid?

The Charlotte Christian Knights return 15 starters and 20 lettermen from a squad that won the N.C. Independent Schools Division I championship. Jeff Siner

As of this writing, the reigning N.C. Independent Schools Division I champs have nine games on the schedule. Initially, the Knights had been looking to add two games. But coach Jason Estep said he’s hoping to find a team to play on Aug. 24. The other open date, Sept. 14, has been converted to a bye week because of a school retreat. But with six straight games before the playoffs begin, and with a veteran team — 15 starters, 20 lettermen return — the Knights should have plenty of time to get ready for a potential championship repeat in November.

5. Can Justin Hardin keep Charlotte Latin’s powerhouse going?

Justin Hardin will replace Larry McNulty as Charlotte Latin’s head coach for the 2018 season. Hardin was most recently head coach at Providence and Independence high schools. David T. Foster, III

Hardin, a proven head coach, has been defensive coordinator at Charlotte Latin for the past few years, studying under legendary coach Larry McNulty, who coached at the school for 33 years.

McNulty’s last game was a Division II state championship shutout win over rival Charlotte Country Day.

Hardin’s first year could be a good one. He has 14 starters back, including nine on defense, among them all-state linebacker Ryan Brouse.

6. Can Rock Hill South Pointe win a fifth straight state championship?

Only nine teams in the nation have active championship winning streaks of four of more. (The others: Wallace-Rose Hill, Florida Trinity Christian, Lamar (Missouri), Bishop Miege (Kansas), Dowling Catholic (Iowa), Kimberly (Wisconsin), Scottsdale Saguaro (Arizona) and Grand Rapids West Catholic (Michigan).)

The Stallions are 56-5 over the past four years. This year, 50 lettermen and 12 starters are back. They say tradition doesn’t graduate, right?

7. Can Harding do it again?

Harding won its first state championship since 1953 last season, but quarterback Brahaem Murphy is at Army and coach Sam Greiner is at Hickory Ridge. New coach Robert Cross has 10 returning starters, 21 lettermen and multiple college recruits. He’s also got Crouch (3,283 yards rushing, 33 TDs), the N.C. Gatorade player of the year. So, to quote Kevin Garnett, “Anything is possible.”

8. Tell us about some stars or potential stars we may not have heard of.

Lenoir Hibriten senior running back McKinley Witherspoon ran for 2,057 yards and 37 touchdowns last season.

Casey Kelly enrolled at Mallard Creek this summer. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior is the brother of Denver Broncos QB Chad Kelly and the nephew of former Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly. Casey is a three-star recruit nationally.

Hough sophomore defensive back Mario Love made the MaxPreps freshman All-American team last season after he had 30 tackles, an interception and nine pass deflections. Love has 4.4 second 40-yard dash speed and was invited to several elite camps this summer.

9. Has the rest of the state caught up to Mecklenburg County in the 4AA playoffs?

Wake Forest High, an eastern North Carolina power, has won the past two 4AA championships. Above, Cougars running back Devon Lawrence (right) embraces defensive end/linebacker Nicholas Major along the team’s sideline in the final moments of the state championship game against Mallard Creek. Jeff Siner

Well, Wake Forest, an eastern N.C. power, has won the past two 4AA championships. But Mecklenburg County teams won the four before that and have claimed 11 of the 16 4AA title games played all time. Has the rest of the state caught up? Sure, everyone had to raise their game, but after a few “off” years, it seems that Mecklenburg has reset in North Carolina’s power class. We’ll see in December.

10. Before you go, give us some key dates.

Monday: First day of practice in North Carolina.

Tuesday: Observer’s preseason previews begin.

Aug. 15: First playing date (Shelby will host Morganton Freedom on a Wednesday night to avoid a conflict with the American Legion World Series on its campus).

Nov. 2: NCISAA playoffs start.

Nov. 9: NCHSAA playoffs start.

Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr