Conference littered with state title contenders and great rushing attacks
Who makes it to state?: There's a pretty good chance at least one team from the East Central Conference plays for a state title. Last year, both Wallace-Rose Hill and East Duplin reached the final weekend of high school football. The Bulldogs and Panthers have to be considered league favorites again, but Clinton and Goldsboro should both be better this season and could have a say. Any of those four teams could win the conference, especially with the Bulldogs and East Duplin needing to address key losses.
Running wild: The conference is known for its running-style offenses that produce big numbers and lots of points. However, East Duplin and Wallace-Rose Hill each have to replace over half of their rushing offense from last year. The Panthers in particular had six different running backs log more than 500 yards, and all of them were seniors. Wallace-Rose Hill lost longtime starters Javonte Williams and Desmond Newkirk. Don't look for any team to undergo a drastic change in philosophy, however, new names will need to step up and take their opportunities. That should set the stage for Goldsboro's Xzavior Bowden to be the cream of the crop this season. He rushed for over 2,000 yards as a junior and will be a force for opposing defenses.
GAMES TO WATCH
Wallace-Rose Hill at East Duplin, Sept. 21: Both the Bulldogs and Panthers played for a state championship last season. The Bulldogs won the 2A bracket and the Panthers lost the 2AA title, but East Duplin claimed the East Central crown thanks to a 14-12 win at Wallace-Rose Hill. The conference opener could once again decide who holds the trophy at the end of the season.
Clinton at Goldsboro, Oct. 12: The Cougars fell 21-6 to the Dark Horses in 2017, but Goldsboro has to feel good about its chances of breaking inside the top-three of the conference this season. If either of these two teams wants to win the conference, this is a must-win game.
Wallace-Rose Hill at Clinton, Oct. 26: The Dark Horses nearly upended the Bulldogs last season in a 28-22 loss. The penultimate game of the regular season should make the conference picture clear, and announce one of these teams as a serious state title contender.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Xzavior Bowden, senior running back, Goldsboro: A breakout junior season helped Bowden earn an invite to the National Combine at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. His numbers were insane, running for 2,105 yards and 27 touchdowns on offense and 97 tackles on defense.
Michael Badsen, senior quarterback, Wallace-Rose Hill: Nearly half of Badsen's passes in 2017 resulted in touchdowns (40 completions, 18 TDs). He also ran for 283 yards with a 5.1 average per carry. With the Bulldogs' top running backs gone, Badsen should take on a greater role as a passer and rusher.
Kameron Donaldson, senior running back, Wallace-Rose Hill: The explosive Bulldog averaged 9.6 yards per carry last season and more than 535 all-purpose yards. He'll be counted on for far more as the top returning back.
Amaru Herring, senior defensive lineman, East Bladen: Herring lived in the backfield last year, posting nine sacks, 43 tackles for loss and 111 total tackles. While many starters from last year are gone from the Panthers' defense, Herring should make sure East Bladen has a good unit up front.
Jalen Smith, senior running back, Clinton: Smith was a positive surprise despite the Dark Horses not living up to expectations last year. He rushed for 718 yards and tied for a team-high nine touchdowns. Smith will be the feature back this year.
LAST YEAR'S STANDINGS
East Duplin (15-1, 6-0)
Wallace-Rose Hill (14-1, 5-1)
Clinton (6-6, 4-2)
Goldsboro (6-6, 3-3)
James Kenan (3-8, 2-4)
Midway (3-8, 1-5)
Spring Creek (3-7, 0-6)