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The replacements: Nash Central roster turnover main storyline heading into 2019 season

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Nash Central’s Shyheim Pittman, right, angles in to make a tackle last season against SouthWest Edgecombe. Pittman is one of just a few players to return to the Bulldogs' varsity roster from last year. Nash Central lots nine starters on offense and six on defense to graduation.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Nash Central football roster could have held its own graduation ceremony and it would have been well attended.

The Bulldogs graduated nine starters on offense and another six on defense. The losses include do-it-all player Chris High, as well as their top three rushers and top five receivers, while just one offensive lineman is returning.

That’s both a lot of production and experience to replace

In all, Nash Central’s top three rushers lost to graduation — Byron Hawkins, Vinsa Phillips and Kendall Winston — produced 1,674 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, seven of the nine players who caught passes last season have graduated, leaving Sean Bryant and Deante Watson as the lone returners from last season’s receivers group.

“We’re going to be rebuilding on offense,” Nash Central coach Chris Lee said. “And defensively, we have our leading tackler back and another all-conference kid so I feel pretty good about that side of the ball. But offense will be a work in progress.”

Jaylan Williams returns at quarterback for his junior season. Williams was thrust into the role as a sophomore last year where he spent the early portion of the season adjusting to the varsity game.

Williams threw six of his eight interceptions in the first four weeks, and he wasn’t asked to throw the ball often early on. But Williams rounded into form and closed the season strong.

Williams passed for more than 100 yards in each of the final two games — it was the first time he had thrown for more than 100 all season — and he tossed a pair of touchdowns while leading Nash Central to wins in both games.

Across the 10 games, Williams ran the ball 36 times, so the Bulldogs were using him as more of a pure passer to distribute the ball to the wealth of playmakers on offense. This year, Williams could have more freedom to take off if something downfield isn’t open as he works to gain a connection with a brand new receiving group.

During a morning practice this week, the Bulldogs are working on passing drills with a pair of route combinations. During the early portion of the drill, dropped passes were abundant. After a few fell to the grass in a row, Lee had enough.

“We will turn that receiver number into a linebacker number if you can’t catch the ball,” Lee announced. “If it hits your hands, catch the football.”

Funny enough, a player with a linebacker’s number (52) will be asked to catch passes this season as inside linebacker Brandon Petteway will be asked to play both ways as he prepares to get snaps at tight end this season.

Petteway, a senior, hasn’t played offense in his career but the coaching staff believes the team’s leading tackler in each of the past two years is talented enough to pick up a new position.

“it’s new for me, but I've been picking it up this summer,” Petteway said. “I’m pretty excited to do it because it’ll be fun to play everywhere.”

Petteway led the Bulldogs with 134 tackles during his first varsity season as a sophomore. Last year, the junior collected a team-high 118 tackles and was the only player with triple digits in that category.

The inside backer said that watching film has helped him succeed right away. He looks for small things an opponent might do that gives away a play call or the direction a play will go. And he trusts his work.

“As soon as coach shares the film I like to get in my room, close the door and just watch it,” Petteway said. “I’m looking for what to expect on Friday nights. I like to look at the linemen, I watch the guards and tackles, see when they pull, or sometimes the fullback will tell you where the plays are going. Basically, most of the time by looking at film you can tell what they're about to do.”

The cohesiveness of the Bulldogs offensive line will be tested quickly. And how fast the Bulldogs can put together a promising unit is still to be discovered, but the addition of Petteway as an edge blocker will surely help.

Nash Central has a tough non-conference schedule, having to play three 3-A Big East Conference schools. The Eastern Plains Conference is tough as well, including traveling to EPC favorite SouthWest Edgecombe for a game in Pinetops.

“I think in Nash County you always have good skill guys at whatever school you’re at,” Lee said. “That goes for us, too, and it’s the linemen that we’re having to replace. We’ll have one senior offensive linemen, so next year at this time I'll be talking about how much depth we probably have on the line, but right now we’re really hurting for linemen this year.”

Bulldogs file

Coach: Chris Lee (5th season)

Last season: 4-6 (did not make postseason)

2019 first game: Aug. 23, hosting Southeast Halifax

Key losses: Chris High, Byron Hawkins, Vinsa Phillips, Kendall Winston, Jah-Kee Williams, Reggie Johnson, Khalid Speight, Escobaugh Larmond, Israel Brown, Justin Francis

Fast fact: Nash Central won the Eastern Plains Conference in 2017, the Bulldogs first year in the conference. And despite a 2-3 mark last season, Nash Central owns a 6-4 conference record over its first two seasons playing in the EPC.