Titans take to the air

by Chris Hunt

(From left) Hopewell receivers Jason Williams, Leroy Jackson and Brandon Bennett have caught plenty of passes from quarterback Cole Blythe (right) this season.

On Friday, Nov. 19, the Hopewell High School football team will face a very familiar opponent in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs. The Titans’ 35-6 victory over Garinger in Round 1 set up a showdown with I-MECK 4A conference rival Vance, which will be their second postseason meeting in three years. In 2008, Hopewell won the last playoff game between the two programs, 34-26, but Vance is a different squad since then and boasts one of the most suffocating defenses in Mecklenburg County.

Then again, it’s also difficult to recognize the Titans these days.

Hopewell has always been known for an impressive rushing game, but this season, the Titans have surprised opponents with a healthy aerial attack. In fact, this Hopewell squad just might have the most proficient passing game in its 10-year history. In the last eight games, Titan quarterback Cole Blythe has thrown for 159 yards per game, including a season-best 200-yard, two-touchdown performance at Garinger.

In an unusual game for Hopewell, it was the passing attack that loosened up the Wildcat defense to spring the Titans’ accomplished ground game. In the past, the rushing attack opened up things up for the offense. But on that night, Hopewell’s leading rusher, Dondre Lewis-Freeman, managed just 37 yards on his first 12 carries, and it took two second-quarter touchdown passes to receiver Leroy Jackson for 76 and 21 yards to stretch the Garinger defense. With the Wildcat defense on its heels, Lewis-Feeman gobbled up yards late, closing the contest with 169 yards and two second-half scores.

But that game was just a single example of how Hopewell is taking to the sky. Over the course of the season, Blythe has thrown for more than 1,500 yards, better than any Hopewell quarterback in the last five seasons. That span includes celebrated signal-caller Chris Gilbert, who guided the 2007 Titans’ overpowering offense to the school’s first conference championship.

“Cole is playing well because he has more experience on the field,” said receiver Leroy Jackson. “Coach (Chris Rust) has more faith in him now, and (Blythe) has more confidence.”

For Hopewell (8-4) to get past Vance Friday night, it will need another healthy performance from the passing game, and that doesn’t just mean Blythe has to play well. Passing plays rely on timing between teammates, and Blythe has benefited this season from a quartet of pass-chasing Titans: Brandon Bennett, Jason Williams, Alex Holbrook and Jackson. Each receiver has at least 15 catches and 240 yards in 2010.

Jackson leads the Titans with 26 catches for 357 yards. The senior has three games with more than 97 yards, including last week’s 161 yards against Garinger. The connection between Blythe and Jackson spans several years, since they started playing together at Coulwood Middle School.

As good as Jackson has been this season, the other three Titan receivers have had their nights to shine. Holbrook caught six passes for 91 yards and a score in the regular-season finale against North Meck, a 35-28 win on Nov. 5. Bennett snared five passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns to propel Hopewell to a 51-13 victory at Lake Norman, and Williams has four catches for at least 60 yards in regular-season losses to Mallard Creek and Vance.

It wouldn’t be fair to tip the hat to Hopewell’s passing game without mentioning an offensive line that gives Blythe time to find receivers. Linemen Lyndon Johnson, Jason Sparrow, Kevin Auten, Corey Copeland and Ritchie King not only have sprung Lewis-Freeman for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, they have also gelled to protect Blythe. Opposing linemen would have a better chance of sneaking past the bouncer to an exclusive nightclub than get to the Hopewell quarterback.

On Blythe’s 76-yard touchdown pass to Jackson against Garinger, Blythe enjoyed an unusual amount of time in the pocket. So much so that Jackson stopped running on the play. Then again, so did Jackson’s defender. When both players realized the play was still alive, it was too late for the Wildcat defensive back. Jackson had a 2-yard cushion and tracked down Blythe’s 50-yard heave, outracing the defense for the touchdown. Jackson credited his offensive line for allowing extra time to run a deeper route.

And so did Blythe.

“When you have more time in the pocket, and when you have confidence in your offensive line, you can keep your eyes down the field,” said Blythe. “They are playing so much better as a unit this season.”

The Hopewell offense will have to be on its game against Vance. The Cougars (9-3, 6-1) finished second in the I-MECK 4A on the strength of their speedy defense that allows just 16 points per game, but they have also enjoyed a passing revival of sorts.

Second-string quarterback Marc Harris took over midway through the season and turned the Cougars into a balanced offense. In Vance’s first postseason victory in five seasons last Friday, Harris passed for 270 yards to lead his team over South Caldwell, 14-3. That’s a different story for Vance, which is known for scoring touchdowns via special teams and defensive turnovers, not its offense.

“We are going to have to play a complete game against Vance,” said Blythe. “We can’t have too many three-and-outs, and we have to keep their defense on the field. Our best chance is to get on the scoreboard first.”

And this season, that could mean scoring on the ground or even in the air.

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