PEMBROKE — As Jon Sherman prepares for his first season as football coach at Purnell Swett High School, one thing is clear — his team is young.
The Rams lost 20 players to graduation — including Robeson County Defensive Player of the Year Josh Jacobs — from a team that went 4-7 last season.
The turnaround has Sherman looking at a sea of new faces to field key positions.
“We’re very young,” said Sherman, who takes over a program that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011.
“We make youth mistakes and have youth energy. But we’ll clean that up. We need some seniors to step up to give us some vocal leadership.”
Among that group of seniors is Luke Brooks, who is expected to be a leader on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams this season. The cornerback said he’s prepared to help the younger guys step into their new roles.
“A lot of these young guys played jayvee (last season), so I’m just trying to prepare them for the next level,” Brooks said.
“We’re competing against guys that are faster, stronger and more experienced. Playing against some of the best (teams) is fun, but challenging. We’ve just got to worry about us.”
What the Rams lack in experience, they make up for in numbers. The squad has consistently had more than 100 kids competing on the gridiron this summer hoping for a spot on the varsity.
“We have a lot more participation heading into this season,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of energy in practice.”
At the Southeastern Conference’s annual media day, Sherman credited Malcolm Locklear for creating constant intensity and vocal leadership during practices.
“When I first got here (the coaches) told me about Malcolm,” Sherman said.
“He’s been a great leader for us so far and we hope he continues to provide that for us.”
Locklear comes into the season as a starting running back and linebacker. The Rams also return James Hunt, an all-county performer on the defensive side of the ball.
“Being a leader is never easy, whether it’s a young team or a team that’s been together for awhile,” Locklear said.
“But it’s motivation to me. I’m always pushing the guys to do better on and off the field and in the weight room. When something goes bad on the field, I’m the go-to guy. Everyone looks to me for an answer.”
While the team is still looking to find the right pieces to the puzzle, Sherman said he’s pleased with the drive of his players.
“Going through what we’ve done, I’ve seen a lot of commitment,” he said.
“Kids are working hard and the excitement is there. We’re getting there.”
An offensive coordinator at Douglas Byrd in Fayetteville last season, Sherman is bringing a spread-type offense to Pembroke.
The Rams have big shoes to fill offensively, with the departures of quarterback Tristan Lowry — who led the SEC with 1,973 passing yards last season — and receiver Josh Brooks — who led the SEC in receiving yards with 794.
“We’re just going to try to get better,” Sherman said.
“We’re looking for guys to step up. We need to be more physical and hit a little harder. Offensively, we need to run harder, get the pace going.”
Lucas Oxendine is expected to lead the quick-tempo offense. A star pitcher for the baseball team, Oxendine has the arm strength to make the throws. But entering his first varsity season, Oxendine is focused on getting better each day with his preparation and progressions in the new offense.
“We’ve got to work a lot harder,” Oxendine said. “We’ve got a lot of things to work on. I’ve got to be faster and learn to make better decisions.”
Oxendine is well aware of the Rams’ struggles the past few seasons. It’s his goal to start a new era of Purnell Swett football.
“We’ve had a bad past couple of years and I just don’t want that to happen again,” Oxendine said. “We’re going to work to improve that. There’s a lot of change from last year.”
For Locklear, the message is simple: give effort and show passion.
“I preach (those) words to the young guys,” he said.
“I try to keep the team positive. As a team we are still searching for an identity. If you do those two (words), everything else will fall in place.”
The Rams open the season Friday at home against Pine Forest.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.