PITTSBORO — The 2023 season will be the Northwood football team’s first under head coach Mitch Johnson, as well as their first in a new conference full of Chatham county teams.
The Chargers hired Johnson in January to replace Chris Kenan, who led the team to a 4-6 record in his lone season last fall. Before coming to Northwood, Johnson previously served as the head coach of South Iredell for the 2022 season.
This fall, Johnson’s team makes the move from 3A to 2A and will play in the new Mid-Carolina 1A/2A Conference along with Chatham Central, Jordan-Matthews, Seaforth, Southeast Alamance, North Moore, Graham and Cummings.
Johnson spoke with the News & Record this past weekend about how the team’s summer workouts have gone as well as his expectations for the upcoming season, which starts Aug. 18 at home against Riverside-Durham.
CHATHAM N&R: How have summer workouts gone so far? How excited are you about the upcoming season?
MITCH JOHNSON: The vibes are good. We've had about 55 or 60 student-athletes show up. We're still expecting more. We had about 70 sign up to play. I know a couple guys have been gone all summer, so we know our numbers will be even higher.
They're very excited. We competed at a 7-on-7 against a bunch of 4A and 3A schools, including a couple teams that made the state semifinals last year, and we finished second. We only lost to Cardinal Gibbons. We beat a Forest Hills team that was very good. Finishing second in that tournament was big-time. And we had Western Harnett come by the other day and we looked really good against them. We have a lot of moving parts. We have a lot of athletes. Putting the pieces together is the name of the game right now. But we have high expectations being in this new conference.
You mention the numbers you've had this summer. That's definitely not the case at every county school. How important is it to have more bodies out there, not only to create more depth, but also to spell some of the starters during the season?
The way that we practice, we go really fast, so it's good to have other people out there to give you a good look and to give some players a bit of a break. But even the guys who play both ways, they're really in shape.
It's really critical. We saw this at the 7-on-7 and against Western Harnett, it's good to get best on best. We have a couple guys playing on both sides of the ball, and it's good to see them get challenged. That's a big thing about having numbers. You can have a really good practice where you can have your guys being challenged. I truly believe competition breeds excellence and iron sharpens iron. If you don't have the numbers, you're not able to get a legit look ... Our young guys have been able to get a lot of reps and watch the older guys. And they did really well against Western Harnett, too. It's critical to having good quality practices.
How does it feel to have the opportunity to play in a new conference with the other Chatham teams and maybe have a better shot at a conference title?
When you go to those 7-on-7s against some of the top dogs in the state, it helps us feel really good about where we're at. All these guys have been competing against the other schools in Chatham before, so they know what to expect out there. One of the first things we've talked about as a program, right now, is that the first step toward getting to where we want to be is winning Chatham County. You win those games and that's three wins right there, three wins in conference and three wins toward your hope of making the playoffs.
We take pride in that, but we also know it's a stepping stone and it's going to help us build up to getting a playoff spot, winning the conference, hosting playoff games. This is the start of our mission.
Last year, Carson Fortunes missed the majority of the season. What are you expecting from him in his final year with the team? And what have you seen from him already from a leadership perspective?
Carson has had so much adversity with getting hurt. He just wants to prove to everybody that he can stay healthy. He's taken it upon himself as being a leader on the field, especially on the offensive side. He's always making sure everyone is getting their extra work in. And he's really hard on himself when he misses throws. As soon as he made a mistake at the 7-on-7 or someone else made a mistake, he was the first one to say, "Hey, we have to do better," and we just marched on.
His leadership and all the adversity he has been through will give us a little bit of a gritty side on offense. We all kind of have a chip on our shoulder to go out there and execute. He brings that make-up you want out of a senior, but he has also missed a lot of his high school career and he wants to make sure he goes out on top.
As far as the rest of the offense, who are some players you expect to be targets for Fortunes in the passing game?
We have six guys right now, and they're sort of like 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, etc., and they're all working together. We have Cam Fowler, Isaiah Blair, Gus Ritchey, Ashton Elliott and Antoine Brewington. And we should have some other guys who will be players who come in to rotate. We have a lot of weapons we're going to rotate through, and we're excited about that.
Nobody feels the pressure that they have to be the guy. They all want the ball, but they know that at any moment with the way we run things, they could have the game of their life, but they also know they have to do things without the ball in their hands in order for us to have success. It's one of those things where everyone knows their role and everyone knows that at any moment it could be their game and their chance to take over, which is what I love. They all have something special about them.
Defensively, Ritchey obviously gets a lot of attention. But who are some other players you're expecting to step up on that side of the ball?
We have Mason Powell and Ryan Brinker both leading the defense at linebacker this year. We're hoping to stuff the hole with those two. And then we have a couple of guys rotating through on the defensive line. Our goal right now on the defensive line is to be two or three deep and rotate people through. At our other linebacker spot is Ty Williams. He's a rising senior. Man, he's really held it down for us in 7-on-7s and he's super athletic that we can also put him at corner and safety.
With the defensive backs, one of the guys who has really taken hold of a safety spot is Grayson Cox, who is also our backup quarterback. He's kind of our Swiss army knife. He can do it all. And then at the other spots, we have a lot of guys with different attributes that are going to help us in our scheme.