After one year under Jim Mauro, the Piedmont High football team has turned to a former standout player to lead the program into the future.
Aaron Braswell, a 2015 graduate of Piedmont, is now head coach of the program. The 23-year old spent last season as an assistant coach at Piedmont after playing two seasons and spending another as a student assistant coach at Davidson College.
“To be completely transparent, about a month and a half ago I had no idea this was a possibility ...” Braswell told The Enquirer-Journal on Friday. “When (Coach Mauro) came to me and let me know he was returning to Ohio to be a grandfather, I was obviously sad, but he didn’t give me a chance to think about it because the next thing he said was, ‘I think you should be the next head coach.’ I was pretty stunned.”
A four-year varsity player under head coach Ron Massey, Braswell graduated from Piedmont in 2015 as the program’s all-time leading tackler. During his senior season, he was also named all-conference as a running back after leading the team with 1,234 all-purpose yards and 14 total touchdowns.
At 23 years old, Braswell is Union County’s youngest football coach by a few years. He’s three years younger than Andy Capone was when he took over at Weddington in 2018.
Normally younger coaches emphasize how their youth allows them to connect with players, but Braswell said his biggest priority is using his own experiences to develop leaders among his roster of players. When he was in school, Braswell was a captain on the football and baseball teams and was elected Class President by his peers as a member of student government.
“I’m more concerned about the empowerment I can give these kids and the ability to empower them to be leaders in their own right,” Braswell said. “I tried my best (when I was at Piedmont) to take on leadership roles in every situation I could, whether it was on the football team, the baseball team or in the school. I did my best to be a leader in everything that I did, and I think we have some guys who are doing that. I want to continue to use my youth to say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter how old you are or whether you’re the smallest or the biggest guy on the team. You can be a leader, and I want to power you to achieve.”
As far as Xs and Os, Braswell said he wants to open things up and create a more balanced offensive attack.
Piedmont has been known for years as a run-first team, but the Panthers will undoubtedly throw the ball more than the 64 passes they attempted this spring. Starting under center for Piedmont will be rising junior Chase Fesmire, who completed 9-of-16 attempts for 106 yards in the spring. Braswell said former Piedmont quarterback Cameron Tripp, who threw for 1,607 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior in 2014, has been on campus this offseason to help Fesmire with his development.
In the backfield, rising senior Bryson Williams is Piedmont’s returning leading rusher. Williams, a power back, and rising junior Layton Duke — whom Braswell expects to have a breakout year this fall — will share most of the carries.
At the receiver position, Piedmont brings back its top targets from the spring in rising senior Caleb Baucom and rising junior Caeden O’Neal. Braswell is expecting big improvements from the team’s offense this fall.
“Did we use everything in our playbook this spring? Absolutely not,” Braswell said. “I think even Coach Mauro had the understanding that in this COVID year, this was more about developing the guys and giving the seniors an opportunity to have their last season ... This year I think we’re going to have way more talent offensively and we’re going to be way more balanced than we have here in the past. We’re going to be able to throw the ball this year, and I think that’s something that Piedmont hasn’t seen in a while. We have guys who can throw and guys who can catch the ball, and we’ve been working on that a lot.”
Defensively, Piedmont loses two big impact players in defensive tackle Ty Nicholas, an all-county selection this spring, and defensive end Ryan Whetzel, but expectations are high for the unit after allowing just 16.8 points per game this spring. The Panthers bring back three of their four starters in the secondary, including rising junior Justin Smith, who missed three games this spring after contracting COVID-19. At linebacker, rising seniors Evan Sawyer and Matt Lathan will be tasked with making most of the plays in the middle of the field.
“We’re going to be more diverse, and that’s just based on the situation,” Braswell said. “With COVID, we didn’t have a ton of time to prepare with a new coaching staff. We couldn’t do man-to-man because of restrictions, so we came into the spring with just our base and that’s what we rolled with the whole year. I think this fall we’ll have a variety of fronts that people aren’t going to be expecting.”