High School Sports

After giving basketball a shot, pass-rushing lineman finds football success at Butler

Butler senior defensive end NeJuan Worthy, who did not play football until his junior year, spearheads the Bulldogs’ defense. Worthy is among the national leaders this season with 22 sacks, and college recruiters are starting to notice.
Butler senior defensive end NeJuan Worthy, who did not play football until his junior year, spearheads the Bulldogs’ defense. Worthy is among the national leaders this season with 22 sacks, and college recruiters are starting to notice. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

For a guy who didn’t start playing football seriously until his junior year, Butler High’s Nejuan Worthy is having quite a senior season.

“It’s surprising,” said Worthy, a senior defensive end who has 138 tackles and 22 sacks. “I guess I didn’t know what I was capable of. I only had three sacks last year.

“But to be honest, I just had a good summer. I put in a lot of work. I bought in a little bit more and paid attention, more in the details, being in the weight room more and pushing myself.”

Worthy will play a key role for the Bulldogs (12-1), No. 2 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll, when they play host to No. 3 Vance (12-1) in an N.C. 4AA quarterfinal Friday night. Butler coaches said Worthy, who is 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, must pressure Vance quarterback Kingsley Ifedi if the Bulldogs hope to advance to their first N.C. 4AA Western Regional championship game since 2013.

Ifedi, who committed to play college football at East Carolina, leads a Vance offense that’s scored more than 60 points twice this season, more than 70 twice and averages 51.2 points. Ifedi has thrown for 3,746 yards and 46 touchdowns.

“Getting to Kingsley is key,” said Butler High offensive coordinator L.J. Johnson.

Johnson has been the team’s de-facto spokesperson since coach Brian Hales was suspended with pay following a domestic violence incident last month.

“Kingsley Ifedi is a highly-touted quarterback and his stats and his team’s record, they all speak for themselves,” Johnson said. “He can make plays with his feet and make plays through the air.

“It’s really important for Nejuan and those guys up front (for Butler on defense) to have a dominant pass rush and pressure. It’s what we’ve been able to capitalize on all season, our ability to get after the ball.”

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The Bulldogs have shut out three of their past six opponents and allowed an average of 13 points. Johnson said the Bulldogs’ defensive front has played a big role. Defensive tackles Amazi Bell and Johnny Connor have combined for 98 tackles. Tackle Maurice Mclain has 89 tackles and five sacks, and defensive end Tristan Quick has 78 tackles and nine sacks.

But as the season progressed, Johnson said opponents focused on Worthy, who ranks No. 22 nationally in sacks this season, according to national stat-keeping website MaxPreps.

“We’ve had teams chip (block) him with a running back and we’ve had a lot of teams send double teams,” Johnson said. “But it’s kind of pick your poison with us. (Linebacker) Caleb Simmons and Tristan Quick speed rush, and we’ve got the mass inside with Maurice Mclain and Johnny Connor and Amazi Bell. It’s kind of hard to double us.”

A nudge to football

Worthy’s father coached youth football in Mint Hill, so Worthy played growing up. But after arriving at Butler, he was a basketball player, an undersized post who defended players much taller.

Johnson, who was the Bulldogs’ junior varsity basketball coach, said he saw the potential for a special football player and urged Worthy to give it a shot.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t good on the court,” Johnson said. “But I loved the aggressive nature that he had. He was 6-1 or 6-2 and playing post guys. And he didn’t back down.”

Worthy didn’t came out for football until his junior year, playing at 6-3 and 215 pounds. He had long arms and quick feet, honed through basketball, and could get his hands into offensive linemen faster than they could get into position to ward him off. But Worthy wasn’t big enough or experienced enough, especially playing the type of high-level competition the Bulldogs regularly face.

“His older brother, Antonio Worthy, played linebacker at Independence, so football is in his genes,” Johnson said. “But it was just going to be about the details for him. He had to put the work in. The games you win now are won in January or February (of the previous school year).

“So that’s what he has been doing. He’s been eating right, studying film, trying to understand why he struggled to get to the quarterback last year. And the defensive line coaching staff and (defensive coordinator Mike) Nahum have helped him mature as a defensive end. Now he’s getting to his marks and executing.”

Worthy also added 35 pounds since last season, adopting a diet full of peanut butter sandwiches between meals and dedicating himself to the weight room.

“He’s not just 35 pounds heavier,” Johnson said. “He’s also about two-tenths of a second faster. He wasn’t really that fast when he got here. He didn’t know how to run. Once he got stronger in the lower body and torso, he was able to become more explosive. It’s been a lot of work, but it was amazing. Just look at him. You can see it.”

Worthy, 18, is quiet and doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have any college offers yet, but is getting interest from Hampton, N.C. Central, N.C. State. Shaw University offered Worthy a scholarship Thursday. He said he’s thankful to Johnson for pushing him toward football -- and a potential free college education -- but he’s not ready for his senior season to end.

“It’s been fun this year,” Worthy said. “It’s the culture here. The coaches have me firing off the ball and they put me in position to make plays. I’m just happy to be this far with my brothers. I’m happy to still be practicing, to still be playing. And I want to be practicing next week, too.”

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

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