South Johnston gets set for the upcoming fall campaign fresh off its first winning season in three years.
FOUR OAKS — Lucas Layman wasn’t satisfied with how it ended.
He joined the underclassmen South Johnston football teammates in solemnly shaking the hands of departing seniors following last year’s 54-14 state playoffs loss to fellow Quad County Conference member Smithfield-Selma.
Though he can chuckle about it now, some nine months later, the rising Trojans senior knows the disappointing defeat serves as motivation just two Fridays away from the season opener.
“We only made it to the first round and got beat by the same team we played in conference,” Layman said with a wry smile after practice this week. “And that just got me angry. I got to do something about it.”
Layman enjoyed a breakout junior campaign, finishing among the state’s top sacks leaders with 16 1/2 while collecting a team-high 77 tackles – 20 resulting in a loss of yards. He helped South to an 8-3 record, picking up first-team and Best Lineman honors for the 2021 All-Record Football Team in the process.
“He’s (Layman) always had that motor since he was a freshman and I think that’s what makes him special,” said Lee Webb, who led the Trojans to their first winning season in three years during his head coaching debut.
“We talk about (the difference between) being a hard worker and being somebody that works hard. And we pride ourselves on being hard workers. ... Whenever it’s cold, hot. Whether they’re mentally tired ... physically tired – they find a way to get it into another gear. And Lucas has been that person.”
The offense worked just as hard, led by All-Record Player of the Year Brayden Barefoot, who ranked second in the league with 1,303 rushing yards to go with 21 total touchdowns. Meanwhile, all Paul Olive did was lead the QCC with 1,754 passing yards to accompany 15 TDs through the air.
South jumped out to six wins through the first seven and ultimately finished one game shy of claiming the conference title, tying SSS and Fike with a 5-2 league mark.
“It sets a big precedent for the expectations this year,” Webb said. “Those seniors last year, and those juniors, being in the first playoffs that they’ve ever been a part of – I think it opened their eyes to a whole other ball game.”
With Barefoot, Olive and a majority of that group’s skill players absent this fall, new leaders are emerging to help Layman lead.
The squad’s lone returning starter on the offensive line, right guard Amando Guerrero-Nieto, is a four-year varsity member known for his weight room exploits.
As a coveted upperclassman for this rebuilding group, he has upped his vocal leadership to match the example already set while pumping iron.
“We have a bunch of guys that haven’t played varsity ball yet, and we’re just trying to help them out in their journey,” Guerrero-Nieto said.
“I played three years with the guys that just graduated ... so it’s just about a bond. A bond that, when times get tough, we just keep rolling through it. And it’s just getting back to where we were last year, honestly.”
Webb acknowledges how youthful this Trojans team will be, especially on offense, but doesn’t want to put it on Layman and the defense to win each week.
Rather, he’s preaching the importance of being a well-rounded bunch that features depth at all three phases of the game.
“I think if we go into a ball game or go into a season depending on one side of the ball or another, it puts undo pressure on them (players),” he said.
“We tell them all the time, ‘Everybody’s got a job to do and there’s 10 other people depending on you to do your job.”
He added that it’s been encouraging to see the competition level emerging between the young players and older veterans so far, which he thinks is a result of a solid junior varsity program that allowed some of its standouts to move up with COVID-19 problems wrecking rosters statewide since the spring of 2021.
The hottest battle in preseason camp has been at QB, with junior Riley Adams and senior Cole Parker looking to fill Olive’s vacated starting position.
Webb expressed high expectations for Adams, saying that the quick decision maker is “finding his voice” after two years of JV experience.
Parker played middle linebacker on varsity and served as the third-string QB last season. Webb figures him to be a key athlete on offense even if he doesn’t win the signal-caller competition.
Above all, expectations and goals haven’t changed in Four Oaks.
“I want us to be conference champions and go really far in the state playoffs,” said a confident Layman.
For him, that means the defense has to keep pressure on opposing QBs, stopping the run and not getting beat deep.
Webb took it one step further when it came to voicing the team’s aspirations in what will be his second campaign at the helm.
“You want to win a conference championship, but at the end of the day the playoffs are what matter ...,” Webb said. “Once you hit that first Friday in November, you’re one-and-done. And I think that kind of hit them last year – it was over.”
SJ opens the 2022 campaign at home Aug. 19 against Western Harnett.
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or 910-230-2040.