ROCKINGHAM — Potential.
That’s the one word that head coach Mike Castellano used when describing the 2016 Richmond Senior football team.
“We have a lot of talented guys,” Castellano explained. “Some are young and some are seniors with not a lot of experience. Some are juniors that kind of came out of the woodworks and really bought in to improving.
“If we can get everybody on the same page, executing to the best of their abilities, believing they have that ability…and understanding what their job and assignment is, I think we could have a pretty good football team.”
Coming into his second year with the program, Castellano doesn’t want to spend too much time thinking about what happened last year. He and his staff are focused on what they can do each day to make this year’s team better.
“I was listening to a (college) coach speak the other morning ESPN and he would not let the team talk about the year before’s bowl game,” Castellano said. “He said, ‘That wasn’t we, that was them.’ And for us, that’s the case. That was them.”
Last year’s squad finished 11-3 overall, 4-1 in the conference, advanced to the third round of the state playoffs and saw 13 players named to the All-SEC team.
Last year’s squad saw Quientel Goodwin rush for 1,156 yards and eight touchdowns, Lavell Ellerbe score 16 touchdowns on 67 catches and Devon Hunt total 154 tackles and recover four fumbles.
But that was them.
This year’s squad is taking it one day at a time. It isn’t worried about expectations and continues to put an emphasis on getting better every time it steps on the field.
This year’s squad is preparing for a schedule that includes Dudley, Butler and conference foe Scotland — the No. 2., No. 3 and No. 4 teams, respectively, in the CarolinaPreps.com 4A Top-25 Power Rankings.
Richmond, ranked No. 7 in the CarolinaPreps.com poll, will kick off its season at Rocky River on Friday, Aug. 19, before facing off against Anson, a non-conference rival, and Douglas Byrd, who Castellano describes as a “physical” team that will “smash you in the mouth.”
“The good thing about having a schedule like that, which very well could be the toughest in the state, you don’t look at it as a tough schedule. We get the opportunity to play great teams,” Castellano said. “I want to know how our kids compete against them. I want to know how our coaches compete against them. I want to know if we can find a way to be competitive and be successful against teams that have a chance to play or win state titles.”
Senior quarterback Leon Zeigler has been called to lead an offense that graduated the majority of its production from the 2015 season.
Zeigler completed 59 percent of his passes during his junior campaign, throwing for 2,665 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. He also ran the ball 103 times for 235 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“Leon is one of our biggest assets,” said offensive coordinator Steve Burdeau. “I think once the summer began, he really realized that he was the guy that a lot of people were looking to. He’s the one that the spotlight is going to be on a lot of the time.”
Which should make it easier for Damontre Bennett and Dante Miller taking handoffs out of the backfield.
Both Bennett and Miller run track at Richmond Senior and qualified for the state regional competition in four different events this past May. They will be replacing Goodwin, who led Richmond’s rushing attack since the 2014 season — rushing for more than 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how Dante and Damontre do at running back,” Burdeau added. “And how Cymontre (Bennett), Jaleen (Baldwin) and Jayvon (Boyer) do at receiver.”
Junior wideout Cymontre Bennett, who had five receptions and a touchdown in 2015, is a player who has stepped up and welcomed the idea of possibly being a No. 1 option.
“He played a little bit last year, here and there, and ended up getting hurt at the end of the year,” Burdeau said. “He’s been a good influence on everybody — seeing how hard he had to work coming back from the injury. He’s going to be a player to watch out for.”
And holding everything together is an offensive line that features UNC-Charlotte commit Antoine Shaw, who is also going to spend some time on the defensive line. Shaw will be protecting Zeigler and Richmond’s running back duo alongside the likes of junior teammates Chris Coulthard and Daryn Mason.
“The offensive line sets the motor for the offense,” Burdeau explained. “If they’re giving half effort, the rest of the team is going to see that. They really set our tempo.”
“We want to look at a group that cherishes and embraces the idea of going on the field and competing,” Castellano said about Richmond’s defensive unit. “Sometimes I think some people who play defense, or even coach defense, are scared or get angry when they have to go on the field. We told our kids to really try and embrace the concept, like, we get to go play defense. They have to play against us.”
While Burdeau calls the offensive plays that are designed to keep opponents on their heels, Castellano will mastermind a defense that he envisions playing “fast, physical and excited.”
Senior defensive back Steven Jones — who has scholarship offers from Appalachian State, Charleston Southern and Western Carolina — is one of the fastest players on the defensive side of the ball for Richmond. Last season, Jones was named all-conference, deflected four passes and racked up four interceptions.
Some of the more physical guys for the Raiders’ defense include Robert David, Carl Isaac and Deandre Streeter.
David and Isaac, also All-SEC selections in 2015, combined for 118 total tackles, 68 solo tackles, 19 tackles for loss and six sacks. Streeter, who Castellano says didn’t show much consistency at the beginning of last season, finished his junior campaign with 90 total tackles and 8 sacks — the sacks tying for second-best on the team.
“By the time we got midway through the year, we weren’t sure if he wasn’t one of the two best players on the team,” Castellano explained. “We’re blessed to have that guy, who’s had a really good last couple of weeks of preparation.”
Defensive backs Brian Little, Juwan McNeal and Shyhiem Wall, along with linebackers Tyrese Clark, Andre Ellerbe and Delon Wall, are all players who are excited about their projected roles in Castellano’s defense.
“We tell our defensive guys, we can score too, we can make plays, too,” the coach said. “It’s not just offensive guys that can do that. So we want guys that buy in to it and do it as one unit.”
Andrae Jacobs, who is also entering his second year with the program, is in charge of the Raiders’ special teams unit. The former Big South Defensive Player of the Year got his love for special teams during his career at Coastal Carolina University.
“We’re blessed to have a head coach who sees the value in special teams,” Jacobs said. “On the practice schedule everyday, we’re doing at least 30 to 40 minutes of special teams. You don’t do that in a lot of places — especially in high school.”
In his first year as the special teams coordinator, Jacobs saw his special teams unit score a total of seven touchdowns (a conference best) and convert on three two-point conversions.
Goodwin returned 11 kickoffs for 352 yards and two scores, Daryus Skinner returned two of his seven punts for a touchdown and Octavius Harris racked up three scores on 242 punt return yards.
All three graduated this past May.
“Those guys were very talented and very skilled,” Jacobs added. “But we have a couple kids now who have really stepped up on special teams.”
Jones, Boyer, Damontre Bennett and Shyhiem Wall are some of the guys that Jacobs will rely on to lead a group of guys who are just “trying to get a seat at the table.”
Every player on the Raiders’ special teams unit wants an opportunity to get on the field and prove their playmaking abilities — and Jacobs admires that.
“I like to say, like from the movie Paid in Full, ‘everbody eats, B’,” Jacobs said with a smile. “Everybody wants to make a play and that’s what I love about being here. That’s what I love about these kids here. They just love to compete.”
Alex Alvarado is returning for his final season as the team’s kicker, looking to build on a junior season that saw him make 85 percent of his PAT attempts (55-65) and 50 percent of his field goal attempts (3-6).
“We want to be as aggressive as we can to try and get the edge on the other team,” he said. “It’s that third phase of the game that is often overlooked. And we try to do our best job not to let it be overlooked here.”
Reach sports editor Leon Hargrove Jr. at 910-817-2673 and follow the sports section on Twitter @RCDailySports.