SILER CITY — In the couple of weeks since Ryan Johnson took over as the head coach of Jordan-Matthews football, he’s started to see J-M-related posts popping up on social media donning a promising hashtag: #NewEra.
His hiring — which handed the program’s keys over to an alumnus, a man who wore the same blue and gold uniforms more than two decades ago — is a signal that the Jets are trying to get back to old form, creating a newfound identity and improving on previous seasons of often underwhelming results.
In other words, the Jets are trying to start a new era. And Johnson doesn’t seem to mind.
“You can see it as a new era, but my vision is to get it back where it was,” Johnson said a day removed from his team’s appearance Friday in the Jack Shaner Jamboree at Northwood. “I guess you could call us the ‘New Jets’ because things are new and people are excited.”
The last couple of seasons haven’t been kind to the Jets.
In last year’s pandemic-shortened campaign, the team finished 0-7 on the season and dead last in the PAC 7 2A Conference at 0-6.
The Jets scored just 64 total points and allowed 291 in seven games, losing all but two of them by at least 36 points.
After J-M’s season-opener, in which they lost a promising — but heartbreaking — game to T.W. Andrews by a touchdown, 34-26, the season (mostly) went downhill from there, including back-to-back losses to Eastern Randolph and Randleman by 49 and 50 points, respectively.
To put it into perspective, Jordan-Matthews hasn’t won a game since Oct. 2019 — a 12-0 victory over Trinity. It’s been a long couple of seasons.
Last year’s struggles could be blamed on myriad factors, including the lack of an in-person offseason, pandemic-related academic ineligibility and injuries across the board.
Luckily for Johnson, many of those factors have gone away, paving way for a season of J-M football where the sky’s the limit.
“There’s two things you’re going to get from us: you’re going to get maximum effort and you’re going to be disciplined,” Johnson said. “What I took away (from watching last season’s film) was that a lot of times, on both sides of the ball, those weren’t really there. We’re not going to allow that to happen this year.”
Johnson had the opportunity to see his team in action twice last week in two different jamboree events, including the Friday event at Northwood, where the Jets struggled in their first game of the night, making plenty of mistakes along the way.
But as the night went on, Johnson saw improvement in his team on nearly all fronts — and even more so from Wednesday’s jamboree in Siler City, where the offense had at least seven false starts — evidence of a fast-learning group that he said has been soaking up information like sponges.
“In the first game, we came out a little shaky, but we stayed in the game,” Johnson said. “We showed a lot of heart and we fixed our mistakes from the first game and played a lot harder (the rest of the night), so I think that was a plus. … It’s always good to see somebody in another jersey and kind of evaluate where you are right now. I think there were some positive steps forward, but we’ve still got some work to do.”
A lot of the excitement surrounding the Jets comes from the offensive pieces — some younger, some older — that’ll be leading that side of the ball this season, including the “two-headed monster” at quarterback with senior Calvin Schwartz and sophomore Kelton Fuquay, according to Johnson.
Schwartz’s athleticism will allow him not only to play quarterback, but also switch to receiver as needed, where he shined as a junior last season. He’ll also double as a safety, the same position at which he was a PAC 7 all-conference selection this past spring.
“(Schwartz) has been a leader since day one and he’s begining to be a little bit more vocal,” Johnson said. “Calvin’s going to start for us, but as Kelton progresses — because he’s going to be our future, he’s a sophomore — he’s going to get a lot of playing time, as well. Those two are exciting to see.”
Johnson also singled out new senior starting running back Rayshawn Alston — whom he described as a hard runner despite not being the biggest athlete on the field — as another crucial part of the offensive puzzle. He’ll replace 2020-21 all-conference selection Jacquez Thompson, who graduated this summer, in the backfield.
Though, probably most exciting of all for Johnson is Dallas Richardson, a hybrid player who’ll take on most of the offensive skill-position roles, including wide receiver and running back, depending on where his team needs him.
And despite having joined the team a little late, making him ineligible to compete in either of last week’s jamborees, Richardson has already gotten glowing reviews from his head coach.
“He’s probably the best athlete in Chatham County,” Johnson said. “He’s a playmaker.”
Those pieces, among others, will assemble an offense that aims to score more than the 64 points totaled by last year’s squad.
But, as illustrated by his job at Cummings as the defensive coordinator over the last three seasons, Johnson’s heart lies on the defensive side of the ball, which he also called his team’s strong point this season.
Few things excite him more than his defensive line.
He gushed over senior defensive end Toren Korpela, who had four sacks at last Friday’s jamboree thanks to his aggressive playing style.
“He’s a real gritty football player,” Johnson said. “If you saw him walking along the street, you wouldn’t know that, but he’s a really great football player and he’s done a great job for us so far.”
Trevor Woods, a freshman who stands about 6-foot-2, is slated to be another standout player on that defensive line, earning praise from Johnson for being a “grown man” in terms of his size and strength, despite being just 14 years old.
In an effort to fill one of the linebacker spots also left behind by Thompson’s departure, Johnson tabbed sophomore Tyler Poe as the hard-nosed, standout linebacker the team needs to tie the defense together.
“He will come up and light you up,” Johnson said, chuckling.
The Jets will take the field this season as a member of the newly constructed Mid-Carolina split 1A/2A conference, where they’ll be able to face-off against inter-county rivals Chatham Central and Seaforth (in J.V.) for years to come.
While Johnson will have only had 15 days with his team by the time the home season-opener against Southwestern Randolph rolls around on Friday — after being hired on Aug. 5 — he’s confident in what he’s seen over the last couple of weeks, as well as what his assistant coaches have been able to do with the team this offseason.
And what’s the first step toward that new era?
Earning the team’s first win in nearly two calendar years.
“We have a good idea of what we’re going to do, gameplan-wise, but this is for the kids because it’s the first home game and it’s a big deal for them,” Johnson said. “I’m so happy to be back. … I’m just super excited. I probably won’t be able to sleep this week.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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