Butler High junior wide receiver D.J. Little said the Bulldogs might have one of the area’s biggest surprises this season in senior quarterback Davis Cheek.
That is, if a returning 2,000-yard, 16-touchdown passer on a perennial state power is that big of a surprise.
“Davis has gotten a lot better,” Little said at practice Tuesday morning. “He’s been working hard all summer. We’ve been running routes, doing 7-on-7s, 1-on-1s. He’s ready to rock this year. His decision-making (has improved) most definitely and he’s opening up his arm right now and he’s letting it fly. ...I don’t see anyone stopping our quarterback, so we’re just going to throw the ball.”
At first glance, Cheek is bigger, adding at least an inch and 15 pounds from last season.
At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he makes accurate throws to receivers who are closely covered, and repeatedly tosses high spirals to teammates, passes that float just past the defense exactly where they need to be.
“I feel like I’ve made a bunch of improvements in the offseason,” said Cheek, who has committed to play in college for Elon. “I don’t feel as much pressure (as last season). I feel pretty comfortable.”
The Bulldogs, who begin the season ranked in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll, won N.C. 4AA championships in 2009, 2010 and 2012. In doing so, they put an end to Independence’s long run as the state’s most dominant team. The Patriots won seven straight state championships from 2000 to 2006 and reached the 2007 N.C. 4AA state final. Butler overtook them in 2009.
But after winning the state title in 2012, Butler has watched as Mallard Creek has won three straight N.C. 4AA championships, produced high school All-Americans, college recruits and regularly appears in national rankings.
Mallard Creek has ended Butler’s season in every playoff year since the Bulldogs’ 2012 championship run – 35-30 in the second round in 2015; 56-14 in the second round in 2014; 56-14 in the 2013 semifinals.
“We’ve been in this position before,” said coach Brian Hales, who returns 14 starters from last season’s 10-3 team. “Going back to ’04 and ’05 and ’06, we had to deal with a monster in the city, and the only way you overtake that is you’ve got to work.
“That’s one of the things with this group of guys. They’re extremely hard workers. ... They’re picking each other up when they’re not having a good day and that’s such an encouraging part.
“You get out on the field with teams like Mallard Creek and Richmond County, and it’s going to take some leadership inside of the huddle and I feel like we’ve got a great deal of that right now.”
Hales said that starts with his quarterback.
“His commitment has been unbelievable,” Hales said of Cheek. “He’s been like that since he came in as a freshman. This year, his commitment to the weight room and nutrition (is very good) and you can see his body fill out and you can see the change in velocity on his throws and his confidence to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball, even when there’s going to be pressure.”
And the quarterback said he has the same confidence in his teammates.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Cheek said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing. ... We want to show everybody what Butler is made of. We can definitely take (state) this year.
“Look around, look at the players’ intensity. It’s a brotherhood around here. Everybody is ready to go and committed.”
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Observer Sweet 16: Butler Bulldogs
The Observer continues previews of teams in its annual preseason Sweet 16 high school football preseason poll. The teams will be revealed in alphabetical order. The full poll, with numerical order, will be released next week.
Head coach: Brian Hales (6th year)
2015 record: 10-3 (5-1 Southwestern 4A)
Key returning starters: Davis Cheek, Sr., QB (6-3, 180); Christian Dixon, Sr., LB (6-0, 200); Dirk Cureton, Sr., WR/DB (5-9, 185); Maurice McClain, Sr., OL (6-1, 305); Devin Smith, Sr., OL/DL (5-10, 245); Nejuan Worthy, Jr., DE (6-4, 215); D.J. Little, Jr., WR/DB (6-2, 185); Kedron Smith, Sr., OL/DL (5-10, 295); Cam Taylor, Sr., OL/DL (6-1, 290).
Key Newcomers: Nijere Peoples, Jr., RB (5-10, 195); Tristan Quick, Sr., DL (6-2, 210); Keyon Lesane, So., WR/DB (5-9, 175); Kaleb Simmons, Jr., LB/TE (6-0, 230).
Returning Starters: 14
Returning Lettermen: 31
Outlook: When a 10-win season is a disappointment, you know how good your program has become. With 14 returning starters, led by senior quarterback Davis Cheek, the Bulldogs expect to challenge for a fourth N.C. 4AA state championship banner.