By Joel Bryant, HighSchoolOT reporter
Bethel, N.C. — Similar to the countless “house flippers” seen on television, Greg Watford has been flipping high school football programs in North Carolina since the early 90s. At North Pitt, Watford is on his 8th different head coaching stop. With one or two exceptions, every program Watford has inherited was in a period of struggle. The teams he took over accumulated a combined 65-112 record over the two years prior to Watford’s arrival.
North Pitt was no exception to the rule. Ahead of Watford’s arrival in 2018, the Panthers produced back-to-back 1-10 seasons. North Pitt’s all-time record is 186-344-5, according to CarolinaPreps.com.
As a result of the situations Watford and his coaching team have taken on, his career record sits below .500 at 138-165-1. On average, Watford has conducted his head coaching stints over three years. At every single school he’s been at, Watford has taken the football team to the playoffs before he left.
Last season, North Pitt was an end-of-season coin flip from doing just that. Unfortunately for the Panthers, they lost the coin toss and had to sit out the postseason. However, a playoff berth looks like a real possibility for North Pitt in year three under Watford.
After coming so close to the playoffs in 2019, the Panthers are set to return every single skill position player in the 2020 season.
Watford believes that the momentum the Panthers generated towards the end of last fall will help them out in 2020.
“Just that process of growing, of getting better, believing in the system and the process set us up for an opportunity to make a playoff run (we were hoping),” Watford told HighSchoolOT. “But right there at the end, we ended up in a three-way tie, we lose the coin flip and so we were home. But the good news is we ended the season on a win, so we got a one-game winning streak going into this season and we’re going to build on it.”
Varsity Record: 3-8 overall (2-3 Eastern Plains 2A Conference)
JV Record: 2-7 overall
North Pitt’s 2019 campaign started with a challenge that sounds eerily similar to what the world has gone through in 2020. A week before the opening game, the Panthers had 26 players out with a stomach virus. The loss of that key practice time was not helpful when it came to preparing for a very good Washington team to open up the season. North Pitt ended up falling in a 31-0 shutout loss to the Pam Pack at home. The game was played on Monday, August 26th.
On the following Friday, North Pitt took a trip to Kinston to take on the Vikings. Kinston won the contest 35-16. After a week off, North Pitt got closer to victory in a home game against South Central on September 13th. South Central won 44-30, but North Pitt’s offensive performance was a positive. Junior quarterback Alex Espinosa-Johnson threw for 112 yards and three touchdowns, while also adding 43 yards and a score on the ground.
The Panthers struggled against Ayden-Grifton on the road on September 20th. The Chargers won the contest 44-12 thanks to their consistency throughout all four quarters. After an 0-4 start, North Pitt’s first win came on the last Friday of September. The Panthers spoiled East Wake’s Homecoming by winning in a 36-32 shootout on the road. Espinosa-Johnson completed three passes for 95 yards and three touchdowns, while sophomore running back Raheem Jones rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. One week later, the Panthers traveled to Greene Central and fell to the Rams in a 14-6 defensive struggle.
Conference play began for North Pitt on October 11th. The Panthers hosted a very strong SouthWest Edgecombe team and fell 44-13. North Pitt allowed 330 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. That was the last blowout the Panthers would end up on the wrong side of in the 2019 campaign. On October 18th, North Pitt traveled to Beddingfield and fell to the Bruins by a score of 21-12.
North Pitt picked up its first conference win on October 25th. The Panthers easily defeated North Johnston at home 28-6. Raheem Jones had a very productive night with 132 rushing yards and three touchdowns. On the first of November, North Pitt fell to Nash Central in a 27-12 contest. Unlike the week before, the Panthers struggled to get their rushing attack going. North Pitt finished off its season with a 64-12 blowout win over its rival Farmville Central. Espinosa-Johnson threw for two touchdowns, while the team as a whole found the end zone six times on the ground.
The Panthers missed the playoffs after a coin flip did not go their way.
Players to Watch
Alex Espinosa-Johnson, QB/LB (Sr.) – As a quarterback and middle linebacker, Espinosa-Johnson will be as integral to his team’s success as a player could possibly be. As a junior, Espinosa-Johnson threw for 580 yards, 11 touchdowns, and six interceptions. He also rushed for 440 yards and five touchdowns.
Davy Smith, C (Sr.) – Smith has a chance to be North Pitt’s valedictorian in the 2020 class. He is also a very important football player for the Panthers. At 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, Smith is the anchor of North Pitt’s offensive line.
Raheem Jones, RB/NG (Jr.) – As a sophomore, Jones rushed for 576 yards on 77 carries, an average of 7.5 yards per. He reached the end zone nine times. Jones also added 271 kick return yards in 2019. On defense, Jones added 30 tackles in eight games from up front. He is a rare player that is speedy and just as strong as he is fast.
On’Teds Harris, WR/FS (Sr.) – A 6-foot-2 athlete, Harris led the Panthers in receiving in 2019 with 197 yards on just eight catches. Four of those receptions went for touchdowns. Defensively, Harris tallied 51 total tackles, 12 pass break ups, one interception, and one fumble recovery. As a kick returner, Harris took six kickoffs for 171 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown.
Juqual Hyman, RB/LB (Jr.) – After a productive sophomore season, Hyman should play a big role in North Pitt’s efforts this upcoming season. Hyman contributed 284 total yards of offense and three touchdowns in limited action. As a defender, he registered 36 total tackles. You’ll find him in a prominent role on the second level of the defense in 2020.
Ja’quez Coffey, WR/SS (Sr.) – Coffey led North Pitt in receiving touchdowns with five in 2019. He was right behind Harris in yards and receptions. Defensively, Coffey contributed 23 total tackles. He stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds.
Bryan Jones, DE/TE (Sr.) – Bryan Jones is North Pitt’s leading returning defensive lineman. At 6-foot-2, Jones compiled 27 tackles in seven games.
Ni’Jay Lee, ATH (So.) – North Pitt’s multi-sport “super sophomore” Ni’Jay Lee is going to have a big role on varsity this season after having big production on the JV level. North Pitt is excited about the prospect of having him fulfill a corner position on defense.
What’s New This Year?
The area with the most upheaval going into the season for the Panthers will be their offensive line. A few quality seniors graduated, leaving that group with more questions than answers right now. There are a number of candidates for the job, but it’s just a matter of them getting the work in before the season and the coaching staff to figure out what the best fit will be. North Pitt’s staff is going to rely on Davy Smith to help lead and get the rest of the line to where it needs to be.
North Pitt might also be without a good player named Jaiden Harris for some amount of time, as he suffered a season-ending injury towards the end of the year in 2019.
Aug. 21 – @ Washington
Aug. 28 – vs. Kinston
Sep. 4 – @ Greene Central
Sep. 11 – @ South Central
Sep. 18 – vs. Ayden-Grifton
Sep. 25 – vs. East Wake
Oct. 2 – BYE
Oct. 9 – @ SouthWest Edgecombe*
Oct. 16 – vs. Beddingfield*
Oct. 23 – @ North Johnston*
Oct. 30 – @ Nash Central*
Nov. 6 – vs. Farmville Central*
North Pitt on a steady track to becoming a regularly competitive team in the Eastern Plains 2A Conference.
There are not many teams that can say they return as much at the skill positions than North Pitt. Alex-Espinosa Johnson will be one of the better returning quarterbacks in the area. Espinosa-Johnson originally came in as a lineman. The coaching staff quickly realized he had potential as a passer. He has dual-threat capability and should also be a factor on defense in 2020.
Joining Espinosa-Johnson in the backfield will be rising junior Raheem Jones, who has a chance to have a breakout season this fall. Jones plays both running back and nose guard. Jones is also a big part of the North Pitt track team. Watford thinks he has the potential to be a Division-I football player.
In addition to Jones, North Pitt has another rising junior rusher in Juqual Hyman. Hyman should see a bigger role in his junior year. North Pitt also has its top two receivers back in Ja’quez Coffey and On’teds Harris. Both players stand well over 6-feet, produced big plays, and found the end zone at least four times in 2019.
The number of athletes coming back has Watford and the coaching staff very excited to get out on the field this summer and fall.
“The truth is, in my experience, and I’ve been around for a minute, I’ve never had a team with this many skill players,” Watford said.
The Panthers’ advantage of having so many key skill position starters back could be even more impactful in a year that has seen offseason workouts stripped away due to the coronavirus pandemic. While some teams have to implement a lot of new players in key positions and build their chemistry with the regular starters, North Pitt brings back players that know what they’re supposed to do and know how to play together.
Defensively, the Panthers are going to look for Davy Smith, Raheem Jones, and Bryan Jones to cause problems up front. Espinosa-Johnson will be a big part of the defense from the middle linebacker position. Watford thinks that could ultimately be where he ends up playing in college. Juqual Hyman will also help out Espinosa-Johnson in the middle. The secondary should be very capable with athletes Ja’quez Coffey, On’teds Harris, and Ni’Jay Lee filling out the roles.
One of the things that will be working against North Pitt will be the schedule. The Panthers open up the season with back-to-back contests against Washington and Kinston, the teams some are projecting to be the top two in the Eastern Carolina 2A Conference. In week three, they’ll face a Greene Central team with some athletes. The Panthers will have to travel to 4A South Central in week four to take on a Falcons team that was both young on varsity and had a great JV team last fall. North Pitt will finish its non-conference slate with Ayden Grifton, who is always good, and East Wake, a team that has been good in the past.
On top of a very tough non-conference stretch, the Panthers’ first two conference games will be against the teams that most are projecting to finish No. 1 and No. 2 in the league: SouthWest Edgecombe and Beddingfield. Towards the end of the schedule, the Panthers will be favored against North Johnston and Farmville Central. North Pitt’s game against Nash Central on the road on October 30th will likely have a lot of playoff implications.