LAURINBURG — Scotland High School football coach Richard Bailey knows that if the Fighting Scots don’t bring home a 4A state championship this year it will be a disappointment.
“For most teams that would be great,” he said. “We’ve won the conference championship five years in a row, so obviously expectations are high going into this season. We want to win a state championship, that’s pretty much our goal every year. Another conference championship is something we want to obtain that as well, but state championships are what we’re really after.”
The Scots were eyeing a perfect season in 2015 with a 12-0 overall and 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference to secure their fifth straight conference title, when North Davidson entered Pate Stadium in the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs.
With 1:33 left in the game Bailey made the decision on fourth-and-2 at the North Davidson 48-yard line to give then sophomore running back Zamir White the ball. White was stuffed to give the Knights the ball at midfield. Three plays later North Davidson found the end zone to take a four-point lead, 46-42.
At the time the the Associated Press had the Scots were ranked No. 1 in the state and all signs seemed to point to a state title — but injuries plagued the Scots and had a significant impact on that game.
This season, Bailey is just hoping to first make it through the preseason without injury, then try to survive a rigorous SEC schedule with his team intact.
“We were ranked No. 1 in the state at the point we lost last year to North Davidson,” Bailey said. “They are a very good football team, but we were a little beat up and unfortunately lost a shoot out at our place.”
While the Scots lost several key players to graduation — Jonathan Smith, Timon McMillian, Mazani Stubbs, Dashaun Ferguson, Willie Douglas, Randy Leak — the cupboard is far from empty. The Scots return the SEC Offensive Player of the Year in rising junior Zamir White in the backfield along with All-SEC selections Redric McLean, Niga Hailey, Donta Green, Octavis McLaurin. Bailey also earned his fourth consecutive SEC Coach of the Year nod.
In the off season, Bailey and the Scots have been working on their speed on the defensive side, both on the line and in the secondary, after getting burned by the spread offense last year.
“I like this year’s team,” he said. “I think we’re a little faster. Last year we had problem playing spread teams that threw the ball a lot and we had trouble containing fast, athletic quarterbacks. But this year we’re going to be a lot faster. All four of our linebackers run under 4.9. Our defensive lineman are 4.9 runners or better. We also have good size up front.”
McLaurin will most likely anchor the defensive line after recording 25 tackles, five for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble. Green returns in the secondary for the Scots after having 39 stops, three for a loss, one interceptions, four defended passes and one forced fumble.
Scotland senior Sergio Gibson will start under center this season after being the back-up quarterback to Dashaun Ferguson in 2015. Gibson quarterbacked three games last season for the Scots after an injury sidelined Ferguson.
Gibson threw for 318 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in his three starts.
As the preseason has progressed Bailey has seen Gibson’s confidence rise, as he gets more and more reps with his receivers.
“Serg did start three games for us last year and won those three games,” said Bailey. “He’ll be better this year than in the three games he played last year. We’re excited and think he’s going to be a good player for us. He’s got a little swagger about him. He feels like he can be successful.”
Traditionally the Scots are a run heavy team — and why wouldn’t they be with White in the backfield — but Bailey said they have focused on making the limited number of passes they do execute in a game worth something.
One of Gibson’s main targets this year will be fellow senior Barry Campbell, who will be a bit of an unknown to start the season, played behind former wide outs Douglas and Leak.
“Barry is someone not many people have heard about because he played behind some good players last year, but I think he’ll have a breakout year for us,” said Bailey.
Last season, the 6-foot 3-inch Campbell had seven catches for 53 yards and one touchdown. He also averaged 12.4 yards on the nine kick returns he fielded for 62 yards.
McLean will return for the Scots at the tight-end position where he had four catches for 54 yards. The rising senior will also continue to open holes and be a blocker for White.
The Scots return Hailey on the offensive line, but do lose J’Quan Breeden and McMillian. Despite the losses, Bailey has confidence in his big men up front and their ability to protect Gibson and make holes for White.
It’s no surprise to anyone that the Scots offense will once again revolve around White, who had a sophomore season most players only dream of.
“We have probably the best running back in the United States in Zamir White who rushed for over 2,000 and 43 touchdowns last year,” said Bailey.
That isn’t a coach trying to oversell his running back either, the numbers speak for themselves. White rushed for 2,145 yards on 260 carries for 41 touchdowns. The 6-foot 200-pound junior also has good hands with four receptions for 50 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 8.3 yards per carry which resulted in 11 games where he rushed for more than 100 yards.
White’s best came was against Independence last August, where he rushed for 302 yards and six touchdowns. All of those staggering numbers has resulted in ESPN ranking White as the top running back in the country for the Class of 2018 — the country.
He is being courted by some of the best football programs in the SEC, Big 10 and the ACC — with more suitors to come if White has another season like 2015.
But one man doesn’t get a football team a state title, it takes all of the players doing their part, which Bailey is aware of and is confident he and Scots have all the right pieces to have a championship team.
“I think we’re well-rounded and have all the pieces we need to be a very good football team,” he said. “Anything short of winning a state championship is somewhat of a disappointment. We haven’t done it. To me winning a conference championship is the first step and an undefeated season would be huge, but ultimately we want to win a state championship. If not there is going to be a level of disappointment in Scotland County.”
Amber Hatten can be reached at 910-506-3170.