PITTSBORO — Gus Ritchey, a rising sophomore and star of the Northwood football team, has never been more ready to be on the field.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people,” the tight end/defensive end said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you lost 25 seniors, you got some new players coming in,’ but we have a lot of athletes, good athletes and a lot of good players. Yes, we’re a young team, but I think we’re going to make it far.”
This season, with a new head coach and revitalized purpose, Northwood is looking to diversify its offensive game plan from its run-heavy tendencies of last fall. Chris Kenan, who took over as Northwood’s head coach in January, is implementing new, college-style offensive schemes to take advantage of the Chargers’ strong receiving corps and the quarterback skills of senior Will Smith and junior Carson Fortunes.
“We want to use our playmakers’ advantages to the best of our ability,” Kenan said. “I think this year we have to use our best players and give them the ball wherever they see fit. Whether it’s in space or tight up the middle, I think we have to be creative in the way we give our playmakers the ball this year.”
Friday’s annual Jack Shaner Jamboree once again showcased this season’s biggest impact players will be the trio of Ritchey, Smith and Fortunes. All three starters played both ways for the Chargers and were effective in various positions.
While Smith and Fortunes have been in a heated battle for the starting quarterback position, the Jamboree saw the duo split time at signal-caller and slot in as effective running backs. Both players were a consistent defensive presence as well — Smith recorded an interception at safety and Fortunes made clutch tackles at the outside linebacker position.
“Both of those guys are the best two athletes we probably have on our team, arguably,” Kenan said. “So they both have to be on the field in some capacity most of the time to give us our best chance to win the football games. We’re so banged up right now we have to put guys on the field the best we can to give us the best team. I thought both options looked good on the team, Carson at quarterback and Will at running back and vice versa. They both bring a different element to the game but their elements are very needed for us to win.”
Ritchey, who Kenan considers the “No. 1 athlete in his class in the state of North Carolina,” put his dominant size on display on Friday. At weakside defensive end, Ritchey’s unique combination of strength and elite footwork make the sophomore a consistent threat to rush the passer and has drawn him offers from the likes of Georgia, UNC and Michigan. At tight end, the 6-foot-5, 230 pound sophomore alternated between making critical blocks and receptions to move the Chargers down the field.
“Gus is a big two-way player for us because he’s a good defensive end so he’s really locking that down,” Northwood junior and fellow defensive end Mason Powell said. “And it helps us with teams because they’ll focus on him and try to go right at him versus focusing on the team as a whole.”
The Chargers, who finished last season with a 4-6 record and first-round state playoffs loss, quickly found themselves in a hole after dropping the first game of the 2021 season in a 61-0 loss to Lee County.
Despite picking up quality wins against conference opponents Person and Orange down the line, the Chargers’ reliance on the Power-I formation quickly turned against them as opponents began stacking the box.
“Our coach last year was highly against passing,” Smith said. “It was kind of our fault at the same time because we weren’t executing the pass plays during practice so he kind of said, ‘Scratch that, we’re going to run.’”
Northwood’s upcoming schedule, which features the same first four teams Northwood faced last year, will provide the Chargers a chance to test its new spread offense against some familiar faces. Northwood’s first game is Friday at Lee County.
Along with this challenging non-conference schedule to begin the season, Northwood will likely face depth issues this fall after graduating a senior class that included the Chargers’ top three rushers in Dashaun Vines-McSwain (574 rushing yards, 8 TDs), Jalen Paige (590 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Ryan Hilliard (376 rushing yards, 3 TDs).
This presented a recruiting challenge for the coaching staff in the offseason that Kenan described as “challenging” but “fun.” This fall, Kenan said nearly half of Northwood’s roster is composed of newcomers, a combination of incoming first-years and athletes gleaned from other sports.
“It’s going to be fun to see how these guys’ hard work pays off,” Kenan said. “I know we have an inexperienced team and we lost a lot, we didn’t win much last year, but I love our group.”
This youth and inexperience were on display in Friday’s jamboree. Blocking and tackling fundamentals were emphasized by the coaches in the postgame huddle after several scrimmages exposed a lack of discipline in positioning by the Chargers’ linemen.
However, if you ask Smith, one of Northwood’s captains for the upcoming season, he has faith in the mentality of his undersized team.
“It’s not about size, it’s about dog and your heart,” he said. “It’s not about how big you are and how fast you are, it’s about how much effort you put forth. So we’re just going to see, we better not be giving up, that’s all I’m saying, we won’t be giving up.”
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