Asheville – Asheville Cougars are bringing back some Danny Wilkins-like rushing toughness, with new head coach Cort Radford and a large and experienced offensive line.
Radford knows all about WMAC trench warfare, and the intense Asheville-Reynolds rivalry — from the other side. The 2007 Reynolds grad played football center, and starred as a baseball catcher. He played against Asheville’s 2005 state football champion squad, led by the ACC and NFL-bound duo of quarterback Crezdon Butler and RB Johnny White. “The “Cou-gar!” chant meant bad news is coming” for foes, Radford recalled. “I’m happy to be on this side” of the rivalry, leading a 34-man varsity squad. He succeeds David Burdette, who is now Tuscola’s defensive coordinator.
Rather than flame the quest for vengeance against TCR for its decisive 42-21 win at AHS in ‘19, Radford said, “I give every kid a clean slate. We don’t talk about last year. I wasn’t here. I talk to my kids about legacy. Asheville once won 13 consecutive conference championships” in the 3A portion of the league that was a 4A/3A split, under Wilkins and a punishing I formation on offense. “We want to return the program to that level.”
Senior Vasili Paulk said Radford “brings a college culture,” with greater expectations and preparation. Slade Singleton from Chase is the offensive coordinator, while DC Cody Cheek comes over from rival Erwin.
Look for more running than before out of Asheville’s spread. “You gotta be able to run the ball. We’ll pound the football, to establish a downhill game,” Coach Radford said. “We have the runners and strong linemen to do it.”
Power backs are Vasili Paulk (6-1, 205 sr.) and Ben Scott (6-2, 240 sr.). Scott bulled in for a score in the opening loss at Roberson Friday. Paulk has been a receiver as an H-back/tight end. Radford said “Vas” (Vasili) is a “great worker and leader. Teammates respect hm. Players like him fight to the death on the field.”
Speed backs are Lamarius Jones (5-9, 190 sr.) and Israel Walker Jr. (6-0, 174 sr.). Jones ran for 83 yards on 28 carries Friday. Lateral dancers need not apply, Radford said. “We want our guys to make one cut, and get downfield in a hurry.”
If defenses play against the run and “load the box” up front, then “we’ll throw short passes or go downfield. We’ll take what the defense gives us.” AHS deploys an “11 personnel spread” — usually with one back, three receivers, and a tight end. Radford said there will be two and even three TEs at times, and “we’ll move in formation.”
Following the Three Hillier era, the new QB is another strong thrower in 5-foot-10 sophomore Khalil Conley (5-10, 170 so.). “He’s impressive, and smart. We ask Khalil to make many reads” of the defense, Radford said. “He’s mobile. He throws lasers (as Hillier did). He’s working on when to put finesse and touch on the ball.” Conley shined in the opener. He sliced through Roberson tacklers and ran around them — for 137 yards — and threw for two TDs in a steady, chilly rain. Radford said Conley reacted well to defensive pursuit, in figuring when to run or pass.
A fast group of receivers by committee includes Heff Finley (6-1, 153 so.), Trevonte “Tre” McGahee (5-11, 154 jr.), Walker, Kamari Jenkins (6-2, 186 sr.), Landon Miller (6-0, 180 jr.), and Noah Shaw (6-0, 183 fr.). FInley and Miller each caught TD passes Friday.
Four of five large starting Asheville offensive linemen are back: Yale-bound LT Tama McDonough (6-5 1/2, 220 sr.), RT Kadin Lynch (6-3, 284 jr.), RG Garrett Martin (6-2, 240 sr.) and center Eric Goode (5-8, 250 sr.). Tanner Graham (6-1, 267 so.) is the big new LG. Cole Bolich (6-1, 288 sr.), who started much of ‘19, rotates in along with Joseph Gates (6-2, 271 so.), Trey Reid (6-0, 269 sr.) and Djibril Gaye (5-11, 220 sr.).
A major weapon is senior placekicker Liam Boyd (6-2, 177 sr.). “He has a leg,” Radford said. “If we get across midfield, he can get us points.”
Six starters return on the multiple defense. Linebackers are Micah Ward (6-1, 230 jr.), Otis Walton-Thach (6-2, 248 jr.), Scott and Paulk; also Jenkins when in a 3-5. The D-line includes Tay Davis (6-3, 232 so.). The secondary rotates receivers, such as Khyriee Jones (6-0, 155 sr.).
“We pride ourselves on being a great defensive team,” and controlling the ball on offense, Coach Radford said. Possible COVID-related player absences clouds the WMAC race, Coach Radford reasons. “There is no guarantee.”