Even coming off a season in which it won just one game, Clover football is upbeat headed into 2016.
The Blue Eagles return 29 seniors and 17 starters, including all five offensive linemen, giving coach Chad Smith belief that this team can break the school’s run of five postseason-barren years.
At the least, the offseason has “not been as stressful” for Smith, who hasn’t had to waste time on basics. He needs to win this year and should be helped by a slightly easier non-region schedule that includes a few schools from just over the border in Gastonia, N.C.
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Also helping: senior wingback Willy Clark - the only Blue Eagle that will play on both sides of the ball - is a dynamic runner. Defensive end pair Derrick Phillips and A.J. Pennington are both legitimate college prospects and the offensive line is big and powerful. Make that the front seven; tight ends Jackson Parrish and Hayden Milley also return to play a big part in blocking, while leaking into the secondary every once in a while for a big-gaining pass play.
For Clover to take the next step, its defense must improve. The Blue Eagles have shipped an average of 36.5 points per game the last three seasons, but new defensive coordinator Steven Peeler hopes to halt that trend. Clover shifts to a 3-4 alignment, which should give it more players in the second level, crucial in a pass-happy region. Smith thinks the entire defense will be better, in large part because of the increased experience and the number of returning contributors.
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Key returning players: Sr. DE Derrick Phillips; Sr. DE A.J. Pennington; Sr. WB/LB Willy Clark; Jr. QB Garrett Miller; Sr. OT Jackson McDowell; Jr. OL Garrett Lutz; Sr. DB Lakerri Adams; Sr. DB Chase Hill; Sr. TE Jackson Parrish; Sr. LB Blake Watson; Sr. OL Clint Jenkins; Sr. CB Sean Tyson.
Coach Chad Smith (4th year)
Career record 36-57
Assistant coaching staff Chris Bunting, assistant head coach/running backs; Jeremy Smith, offensive line; Wayne Williams, tight ends; Wilbur Pender, wide receivers; Tony Cook, quarterbacks; Steven Peeler, defensive coordinator/outside linebackers; Devon Lowery, defensive backs; Jimmy Sutton, inside linebackers; Curtis Godwin, defensive ends; Lee Jordan, nose guards; Clyde Gibson, kickers.
Last season 1-10
Last 10 years combined 55-66 (45 percent)
School state championships 1 (2007)
August 19 Ashbrook* (N.C.); 26 at Forestview* (N.C.)
September 2 Open; 9 South Point* (N.C); 16 Franklin Christian; 23 at York*; 30 Nation Ford*
October 7 Fort Mill*; 14 at Northwestern*; 21 at Rock Hill; 28 Boiling Springs*
▪ Clover’s opponents won 60 percent of their games last season; star denotes 2015 playoff team; cursive denotes Region 4-5A opponent
Numbers to know
320.8 yards per game on the ground for Clover last season.
5 seasons since the Blue Eagles’ last winning campaign, Jet Turner’s 9-3 team in 2010.
9 offensive starters returning for Clover; coach Chad Smith said this is one of the most experienced teams he’s ever coached.
4 of the five teams from Region 4-5A make the playoffs, a big boost to the Blue Eagles’ chances of ending a five-year run with no postseason involvement.
5.9 yards per carry last fall for senior Willy Clark. With fellow wingback Cody Payne graduated, Clark should get the chance to carry more of the load even in Clover’s system, which utilizes many different ball-carriers.