Well-Balanced Bucs

Charlotte Country Day’s high-scoring offense features (from left) Thomas Jackson, Jimmy Kleitches, Michael Radford, Reavis Ford and Akanimo Eyo.

Traditionally, the Charlotte Country Day football team’s offense has been known as a strong unit that typically won games running the ball rather than throwing it all over the field. In recent years, however, that philosophy has changed.

Former Country Day star Morgan Roberts, now a redshirt freshman quarterback at Clemson University, came through the Bucs’ program and piled up nearly 2,000 passing yards and more than 700 rushing yards in his senior season in 2010, which ended with the Bucs holding the state championship trophy.

Last year, Country Day had new talent at the skill positions. And even though quarterback Michael Radford had an impressive debut as a starter in 2011, the Bucs finished 8-4 and lost in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I championship game to Providence Day.

This year, veteran coach Bob

Witman said Radford has taken his game to a new level, and the senior signal-caller’s teammates have followed his lead and become a feared offense capable of putting points on the scoreboard in bunches.

“(Radford) has gotten a lot better since his (junior) year, when he was living in Morgan’s shadow,” said senior lineman Reavis Ford. “He’s worked hard and made a name for himself. I feel really confident blocking for him, because I know he’s going to make a play.”

Behind Radford, the results on the field have been good, as Country Day sports a 6-0 record, which is its best start since the 2009 team started 9-0. These Bucs are hoping to follow in the 2010 squad’s footsteps, and the believe Radford is the ideal leader to get the job done.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Radford is the Bucs’ offensive catalyst, and, like Roberts, is headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference, having committed to Wake Forest. On the year, Radford, a dual-threat quarterback, has thrown for 1,120 yards and 17 touchdowns against just three interceptions while gaining 372 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

Radford said that entering this season, he didn’t know what to expect from his receiving corps, but he added that pass-catchers such as Thomas Jackson and Akanimo Eyo have quickly picked up the offense, giving him numerous weapons outside.

“Starting out, we knew that we were going to be really young and small, but we’re fast,” Radford said. “We all know what we’re going to do, and we’ve been executing. We practice really hard and go out and do what we need to do during the games.”

A big reason for the Bucs’ early-season success has been Eyo and Jackson, and running back Jimmy Kleitches, along with Ford and the rest of the offensive line.

Jackson, a 5-11, 175-pound junior, leads the Bucs with 21 receptions for 314 yards, and Eyo, a 5-8, 160-pound junior, is the speedster of the group and has 15 receptions for 282 yards and a team-high six touchdowns in this, his first season of varsity football.

“T.J and Akanimo have come in and stepped up for us,” Witman said. “T.J. has been really solid, and
Akanimo gives us the deep threat that we really needed. They have helped loosen up the running lanes, too.”

Radford said Eyo, in particular, has helped take pressure off the entire offense.

“He’s really fast, but he always seems to find that space to settle into,” Radford said. “After the catch is when he’s at his best. He is dangerous.”

The Bucs’ main option on the ground is Kleitches, a 5-8, 175-pound senior back who prefers to work outside the tackles but isn’t opposed to taking the big hits, either. On the season, Kleitches has scored four touchdowns while compiling more than 500 rushing yards and averaging a hefty 7.2 yards per carry. He’s also added seven catches for 202 yards and another two touchdowns.

“(Kleitches is) fast, and he hits the hole really hard,” Radford said. “He makes really good cuts, and he finds the hole really well, especially on the outside. And he can catch.”

Entering this season, Kleitches was unsure of how effective the running backs would be behind an inexperienced offensive line.

“As a running back, I was concerned with that,” Kleitches said. “But (the linemen) have really stepped up and improved a ton. They all work together and are all friends, so they have done a really good job.”

Ford, a bruising 6-2, 290-pound left tackle, is the anchor on a line that also features seniors Charles Haddock, Walter Vann, Cameron Finley and junior Joseph Howe. The unit’s been formidable and opens holes for Kleitches while protecting Radford.

Despite uncertainties before the season, the Bucs have gelled. They boast arguably the CISAA’s most explosive offense, averaging nearly 40 points per game.

In their second game of the season, the Bucs got a good indication of how good the offense could be. It was the Cook Cup, the annual battle with Charlotte Catholic, which Country Day won, 31-28, to end a two-year losing skid to the rival Cougars.

“We had people yelling at us and booing us before the game,” Ford said. “That’s the first time the seniors had beaten them, and it got people starting to believe in us.”

Radford, who accounted for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns against the Cougars, said the Bucs have followed a simple formula that’s led to so much success on offense.

“The thing we do best is mix it up between runs and passes,” Radford said. “If we give a play-action, we can suck it up a little bit or we can hand it off and then we can go back to the run. We can do both really well.

“We have this saying that we do every year, (and) this year it’s ‘Win the day.’ Bring everything you can every day and win that day.”

So far, the Bucs have stood by that mantra, and Kleitches said he’s not totally surprised by the Bucs’ potent offense.

“We’ve had a lot of young guys step up and make big contributions,” Kleitches said. “We believed that we had a good team and are not surprised by our start, but I think other people maybe are.”

Additionally, the Bucs have been motivated all season by the sudden death of longtime Country Day Director of Football Operations Scott Benson. The Country Day sideline is emblazoned with Benson’s initials, players wear a commemorative patch bearing his name, and the program has dedicated the 2012 season to his memory.

With heavy hearts and a dangerous offense that gets most of the credit, the Bucs’ defense has answered the bell of late. Since allowing 28 points in the Cook Cup, Country Day has surrendered just 22 points combined in its last four games.

“Our defense has done a good job of doing what they do and helping our offense out with turnovers and those kinds of things,” Witman said. “As a unit, they have been really good.”

With the high-octane offense and stymieing defense, Ford said he’s excited to get the conference schedule under way and see where the Bucs stand.

“We’re looking forward to having some competition, which we haven’t really had since the Catholic game,” Ford said. “I think that we play up when we face those (highly regarded) teams, we reach another level of Country Day football. I think we will be successful.”

While the Bucs are looking forward to conference play, Witman cautions that this team is capable of so much more.

“We still have some limitations,” Witman said. “We’ve definitely left some points out there and have not always executed our best when we need to. We can be a lot better.”

That’s a scary proposition for the remaining opponents, but the Bucs know they can improve, and Radford’s excited to lead them the rest of the way – the way Roberts did two years earlier.

“We have that experience and have been working together, so I think that really has helped us,” Radford said. “I feel like I’m on the next level and can know what the coaches are thinking and try to help them.

“We had some goals before the year – like winning the Cook Cup – but we’re not where we need to be just yet. We want to win every game and cap it off with a state championship. That’s our ultimate goal.”

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