Independence receiver Workpeh Kofa couldn’t wait to step on the field Aug. 22 and reap the benefits of an offseason filled with hard work, lofty expectations and a sense that this was going to be the Patriots’ year.
Maybe that explains his massive performance in the opener.
Off the field, Kofa is reserved and quiet. But when he steps between the painted lines, especially on game day, he morphs into a fiery and intense competitor whose personality mirrors his gaudy athletic prowess.
“I get that adrenaline pumping and everything’s going right on the field,” Kofa said. “I’m out there making big plays and (emotions) just rush out of me.”
Kofa and the Patriots wasted little time making their case this could be their year in a 49-0 opening night romp over South Mecklenburg. The offense chimed in perfect harmony only to be outdone by the Patriots’ defense, which smothered any attempt their opponent had of mounting any semblance of an attack.
Then there was Kofa, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound chiseled athlete who uses his rare combination of size, athleticism, speed and determination to beat defenders anywhere he senses weakness.
And he sees a lot of weaknesses.
Against the Sabres, Kofa reeled in six passes for a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns, a foreshadowing of what his senior season could bring. Defensive backs be warned.
“He’s a warrior,” said first-year coach Joe Evans, who’s worked with Kofa the last two seasons as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. “He’s a hard-nosed ball player and he’s got a huge competitive nature.
“He’s not going to be intimidated by anybody and he isn’t going to back down from anybody ever.”
That never-back-down mentality got Kofa in trouble last season when, after torching the Ardrey Kell defense for a touchdown at the end of a 35-7 Patriots’ rout, he got into an altercation with one of the Knights resulting in a flag, an ejection and a two-game suspension.
“I’m going to still play with aggression, but I’m going to be smarter about it,” Kofa said. “I learned that I have to control everything out there. We were winning and I didn’t have any reason to do what I did. I hurt my team and myself.”
Evans said he didn’t think the incident itself changed Kofa as much as the aftermath did when it began to effect his on-field production.
“I think he learned more from the game when he got to come back after that (suspension) because he was so rusty and so bad,” Evans said. “He played terrible, but he was the one who came up to me and said ‘Hey, coach, those two games off killed me because I had no stamina.’”
In part due to the suspension and in part to Kofa’s coming into his own as a player and person, Evans said Kofa’s teammates can sense he’s maturing into a leader for a team many feel will make a run at the Southwestern 4A conference championship.
“Workpeh could become more of a vocal leader,” Evans said. “I want these guys to be vocal leaders and push these other guys into greatness.
“He’s not the most vocal guy, but he leads by example. He tries to do things right and he helps out the other guys. He runs routes the right way and does things as hard as he can.”
Learning from successful players who have come before him – like last season’s leading receiver Dequan Barnes – has helped show Kofa the ropes and how to handle himself in tough situations.
“He taught me a lot and made me step up my game last year,” Kofa said of Barnes’ influence. “He’s why I was able to go out and have a good season last year.”
With 33 receptions, 604 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago (despite missing two games for suspension), college recruiters’ interest in Kofa began to take off.
He secured offers from Louisville, Toledo, Appalachian State, Ball State, and Charleston Southern and was beginning to see interest from ACC schools including Duke and North Carolina.
Kofa ultimately committed to the Charlotte 49ers, saying he felt a strong connection to the program and the coaching staff. But he can help the 49ers later. Right now, he’s focused on helping lead the Patriots to the goal they’re all eyeing.
“I’m trying to step up and do all that I can, but everybody’s taking a leadership role,” Kofa said. “We know what’s at stake and we have a lot of seniors who know it’s our last year.
“We have the weapons to do it and we have one goal and we all know what it is and we’ve bought into this together. We’re going to go get it.”
In addition to Kofa, the Patriots have a plethora of talent to compete for their first conference crown since 2008. Linemen Tony Adams (N.C. State commit) and Chris Wade (Furman) protect strong-armed junior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins. Running back Isaiah Robinson (Wake Forest) is one of the state’s top backs and receivers Jamiek Davis and Jamar Jenkins team with Kofa on the outside.
“It’s good when everything’s clicking like it was (against South Meck),” Kofa said. “The O-line was blocking and gave Kelvin a lot of time to throw the ball. When I get the ball, I just try to find the holes and make something good out of it.”
Evans knows his star receiver isn’t going to often run free like he did in the season-opening game, but said Kofa’s more than willing to adjust his individual production to best fit the team goals.
“People are going to start trying to take him away,” Evans said. “They did it to (former Independence and current Charlotte 49er receiver) Austin (Duke), and they did it to Dequan, so there’s going to be times he has to bring a little extra.”
When Kofa attracts extra focus, he said he’ll be ready to do all he can by blocking, absorbing double teams or serving as a decoy to get his capable teammates more involved.
“I think our receiving corps is much better than it was last year,” Kofa said. “This year, everyone we have is a weapon.”
While the Patriots are loaded offensively, maybe no player presents the type of matchup problems Kofa brings to opposing defensive coordinators this season. So, when time gets tough, Hopkins is going to be looking for his playmaker.
“He’s a glider, he has long strides, he moves well in space and he’s good after the catch,” Evans said. “He’s the best at high-pointing the football. If the ball’s thrown behind him, he makes great adjustments in the air. He’s a great basketball player and he goes up like he’s going to get a rebound and nobody is coming down with the ball but him.”
When Kofa is able to get his hands on the ball – something the Patriots hope is often – he’ll be ready to show what he can do.
“I have to go out and make plays every time that I can,” he said. “I had a good game (in Week 1) but I have to go get more. I can’t stop until we get where we want to go.”