New faces improve their games mentally, physically in order to be leaders

New Hanover's Trevon Brown is ready to step into the spotlight this year. (Photo by Mike Spencer)

Trevon Brown is ready. Southeastern North Carolina lost plenty of talented players in 2011. The result is a dearth of star power and leadership entering the 2012 football season, and Brown, a senior wide receiver for the Wildcats, is one of several players ready to fill that gap.

"I've just got to be a leader," Brown said. "Now it's my team."

It helps that Brown is about as close as it comes to a bio-engineered wide receiver.

He's got huge hands to catch the ball, speed and leaping ability to get open against anyone, and a 6-foot-3 frame hung with muscle to withstand punishment by defenders.

He'll need all of those gifts. Brown and New Hanover have plenty to make up for – the Wildcats lost record-setting quarterback Bates Taylor and two other starting wideouts to graduation.

And those symptoms aren't unique to the Wildcats.

North Brunswick's Jaron Smyre graduated, taking with him 2,010 yards of total offense from 2011. So did Laney's record-setting quarterback Mike Sheehan. Hoggard's vaunted linebacker Terry Caldwell and Topsail's jack-of-all-trades Will Thomas are both headed to Charlotte, part of the 49ers' inaugural class of football players.

That means that a new group of young players is primed to take its turn in the spotlight.

High expectations

To reach that spotlight, players like North Brunswick's Graham Rivenbark spend the entire summer striving to gain an edge.

The Scorpions have a tradition of finding diamonds in the rough. In 2011, Smyre switched from defensive back to running back and tore through the Waccamaw Conference for more than 1,600 rushing yards.

Rivenbark knows he will be asked to fill a number of roles this season: running back, kick returner and defensive back. He's done enough to make North Brunswick coach Gary Bishop excited.

"He's going to be really good," Bishop said. "He runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and he can make things happen. ... He's fearless."

So it's no surprise that, in North Brunswick's first practice, Rivenbark pushed himself at full-speed through the final round of wind sprints – after nearly three hours of practice on the field.

"I'm just trying to get the ball as much as I can," Rivenbark said. "Play both ways, make the team better."

Wind sprints and tire-throwing give players a physical edge, but when asked what changed with an expanded role, players spoke more of a shift in mentality.

Junior defensive lineman Malik Moore views it as his job to carry on Hoggard's tradition of stout defense.

"I want to do my thing," Moore said. "But I also want to shine. I want people to look at me and say, ‘That's Hoggard defense right there.'"

Since he also played on the varsity as a sophomore, Moore said he's taken on more of a leadership role this year, and he's noticed the difference in how he practices. He's tried to set an example by never taking a moment off. He even sprints from drill to drill in practice.

"This year I feel like most of the weight is on me," Moore said. "I feel like if I slack, I would be a bad role model to the younger kids. I want them to think, ‘I want to be like him one day.'"

Brown, who started as a junior in 2011, noticed the same change.

"Last year as a junior I was trying to help all the seniors," Brown said. "That's why I've got to lead by example and get all these juniors to help me to where I could be successful."

Many players, like Rivenbark, are asked to step up out of relative anonymity and some are thrown into the fire young.

Laney linebacker Colt Culler knows how that works. In the fall of 2010, Culler entered ninth grade at 6-foot-4 and was placed on the varsity squad right away.

"It was a complete shock," Culler said, "because I had never even practiced with the junior varsity before, I went straight to varsity. It was a big step up from middle school to varsity football. I held my own, but everything was faster."

Now a junior, Culler is a central cog in Laney's defense. He said he understands the importance of his expanded role this season.

"Yeah, I haven't backed down from anything,' Culler said. "A weight, or anyone. If they tell me to do this or block this person nor you've got to tackle this guy, or they've got a good running back this week, or he's really fast, I just put it behind me and play football."

High pressure, high reward

It's easy to have high expectations in the preseason. But when it's time to play an actual game, players are aware that failure is a clear possibility.

When Brown started his first game as a sophomore, he carried one thought:

"Don't mess up," Brown said. "I just didn't want to let the seniors down."

When Moore started his first game last year as a sophomore, he said his eyes turned to the packed stands.

"Man, there are a lot of people here," Moore thought. "Please don't let me embarrass myself."

And even when younger players do get a chance to play, the laundry list of strikes against them is fresh in their mind.

Ashley junior running back Charles Dent broke into the starting lineup late in his sophomore season after injuries to other players and his own work in practice elevated him to the field.

Now, as one of the starting running backs in Ashley's triple-option system, Dent said he'd had to deal with older players unhappy he was taking their playing time.

"I had to deal with seniors being mad," Dent said. "Difficulties like, ‘I'm not mature enough,' or ‘I'm not old enough to play,' and I've got to take over a starting position, things like that."

With all the pressure that come with stepping into the spotlight and the risk of failing in front of thousands of people, sometimes it doesn't make sense why so many players strive to grab it.

But, then again, Brown takes a different view of a packed stadium.

"All these people, just to see us play," Brown said.

And when asked why he wanted the attention, with all the burdens that come with it, Brown said he understood them.

"At the end of the day, I say, ‘Coach I got it.' I want it to be all on me."


10 vying for the spotlight

Trevon Brown, Sr., WR, New Hanover

Malik Moore, Jr., DE, Hoggard

Colt Culler, Jr., LB, Laney

Charles Dent, Jr., RB, Ashley

Devin Williams, Sr., RB, Topsail

Graham Rivenbark, Sr. RB/S/KR, N. Brunswick

Phillip Gause, Sr., LB, West Brunswick

Levi Prince, Sr., DE, South Brunswick

D.J. Bennerman, Sr., DB/RB, Wallace-Rose Hill

Reggie Frink, Jr., RB, South Columbus