Cleveland’s offense in 2018 could flat out score.
The Rams averaged 40.7 points in 15 games last season, putting up video game numbers while winning 12 games and advancing to the 3AA east regional championship.
However, that high-octane, basketball-on-grass offense, has to replace a lot of its firepower in 2019. Running back Tyson Dew (1,365 yards rushing, 17 touchdowns) and wide receivers Jon Barnes (69 catches, 1,075 yards, 13 TDs) and Joi Williams (62 catches, 1,171 yards and 12 TDs) all graduated last spring.
The unexpected loss was quarterback Darius Ocean, who transferred to Hough High School in Cornelius in January. The two-year varsity starter finished with 3,883 yards of total offense and 44 scores as a junior.
So Rams coach Scott Riley is working to reload after losing players that went for a combined 8,040 yards and 86 touchdowns last season. But the sixth year coach isn’t too concerned as the Rams look to defend their Greater Neuse 3A conference title.
“It’s part of coaching in high school football,” Riley said in a phone interview on Monday. . “A kid is going to graduate and move onto the next level so you’ve got to be ready to go along with the next group. We’re really excited about the talent we have coming up from JV.”
Cleveland’s junior varsity team went 9-0 in 2018, and one of those starters, quarterback Skyler Locklear has been thrust into the spotlight this summer, looking to replace Ocean.
Locklear led an offense that topped its varsity counterpart, averaging 41 points per game on the JV level. But Riley is comfortable with Locklear, a sophomore, leading the charge based on what he’s seen throughout the spring and summer.
“He’s picking up on stuff quicker than most would,” Riley said. “He’s a kid who doesn’t make the same mistakes over and over again. He learns from his mistakes fairly quickly so we can teach him new material.”
When Riley found out in January that Ocean was leaving, he pulled Locklear aside and told him he believes in him, even knowing he would be the guy a year earlier than expected. Locklear is a three-sport athlete who also plays basketball and baseball. He’s always competing, and Riley says that plays a huge role in his growth this summer.
“It’s football, it’s the same thing,” Locklear told The News & Observer on Tuesday when asked about moving up to varsity. “It’s faster, I just need to adjust to it, but it’s the same thing.”
Locklear will have some veterans to throw the football to this fall. Cleveland returns wide receivers Kouren Artis (29 catches, 515 yards, 6 TDs) and Isaiah Sawyer (11 catches, 116 yards), a pair of seniors who should help speed up the learning curve for Locklear.
Locklear will also have classmate Omarion Hampton beside him in the backfield. As a freshman last season, Hampton appeared in 11 games, averaging 7.0 yards per carry in relief duty of Dew. He weighed in at 205 pounds this summer and runs a 4.5 forty.
“He looks to be very, very good at a young age,” Riley said.
The Rams also return four offensive linemen and 12 players who started at least one game on defense a year ago. While the offense gets a lot of attention, Riley expects this to be one of the best defensive units he has coached.
“We’ll have someone on the sidelines week one, who started three or four games last year,” Riley said about the defensive side of the ball. “It’s great having depth on the defensive side of the ball.”
In 2018 the Rams went 12-3 and a 5-0 in league play, improving Riley’s record to 49-19 overall and 23-2 in conference play. The deep run to the east finals was spoiled by a 37-33 loss to Southeast Guilford, a game in which Cleveland held a 19-point lead. That game stung, but it has inspired the Rams to make sure 2019 doesn’t end in disappointment.
“When kids have the hope of winning a championship, winning that last game it gets them excited,” Riley said. “The fact that they didn’t win it, it got them back interested in football and motivated to do a little more sooner.”