MATTHEWS – Charlotte Christian defensive back LJ Brown said his team has heard all of the chatter. They’ve heard how they lost three starters, alongside himself, in the secondary and a few others on defense who helped lead the Knights to a second straight state title last season.
“We hear it,” he said after the 35-13 opening-night win over Sun Valley, a team that won a school-record 21 games over the past two seasons. “But we don’t listen to it.”
Brown picked off two passes in the win. So, too, did new starter Will Farrell, who returned one of those picks for a touchdown.
“I wanted to stay back and force a bad throw,” Farrell said. “Thankfully we had a good pass rush, and I was able to get to a couple of them.”
The defensive front helped force six turnovers in the game, including two fumbles and four interceptions from freshman phenom Carson Black, who started at quarterback for Sun Valley.
“Defensively I think we put the freshman quarterback in some tough spots,” Coach Jason Estep said. “He was seeing things that I don’t think he’s seen before and we mixed our coverages and did a lot of things like bringing pressure, but that’s a tough spot for a 15-year-old kid.”
Black had a couple of forced throws that were picked off, but Brown made an acrobatic play on one of his and the secondary seemed to be in the right spot more often than not.
“I think we played well,” Brown said. “We made a few mistakes here and there, but it’s just the first week. We wanted to come out and play well and I think we did. We watched a lot of film on them and we were ready.”
Both of Sun Valley’s touchdowns offered a glimpse into their future with Black and junior Gavin Blackwell, who is a national recruit.
But, for the most part, the new secondary and the rest of the defense was lights out.
“They were great,” Estep said. “To hold those receivers and that group to 13 points is tough to do. I think a lot of people underestimate us right now, and that’s fine. But our guys are going to compete defensively.
“I feel like the strength of our team right now is our defensive line and the box players that we return. Greyson Cadd started every game a year ago at defensive tackle, Phillip Slaughter, Hudson Jones and so on, so the teeth of that defense returns. They thought running it was their strength, but our defensive line is our strength.”
But the offense looked pretty good in their own right en route to a 35-point opening night scoring output.
New quarterback Matthew Tuomala threw a touchdown pass to JB Awolowo to get the scoring going early in the first quarter.
Henry Rutledge scored on a 24-yard run later in the first quarter, but neither he nor Tuomala would finish the game. Rutledge dinged his knee and the starting quarterback missed the second half with a shoulder injury, but Estep said none were serious.
In Tuomala’s absence, Awolowo had quite a night completing all three of his passes, catching a touchdown, throwing a touchdown (a 37-yard strike to Logan Jones) and running for a 6-yard score to cap the scoring.
“I have to be ready for anything,” he said. “I stay in the playbook and understand what I need to do as a wide receiver, a running back or a quarterback to be the best player I can be. Today I was needed at quarterback.”
The Knights have another tough test coming this week in Valor Christian, a school based in Highland Ranch, Colo.
Last year with senior Luke McCaffrey at quarterback, the Eagles went 14-0 and won the Colorado 5-A state title. The Eagles are coached by Ed McCaffrey, the father of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
“I think we played pretty well, but guys that’s about a three on our scale,” Estep said as he talked to his team following the win. “So that’s OK, we’ll go back, get better and come back next week and keep improving from there.”