When Chandler Kryst’s Tega Cay neighbor came up to the Fort Mill Yellow Jacket senior recently, it was with equal parts surprise and delight that he congratulated Kryst and the Jackets on their 3-0 start to the high school football season.
Such is the reaction to a program that’s managed three winning seasons in its last 10.
But the current Yellow Jackets lead the state - all classifications - in scoring through three games with 160 points and are piling up an average of 467 yards of offense per outing.
“It’s a very impressive group,” said River Bluff coach David Bennett, whose Gators face Fort Mill Friday at Bob Jones Stadium. “Very disciplined, very hard-nosed, in-shape, work together, good offensive line, real good running back, good quarterback. Those teams up there that are traditionally good? You know, Northwestern and Byrnes? This might be Fort Mill’s year.”
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There is an important caveat to this feel-good story of a program mid-rise. The combined records of Fort Mill’s first three opponents are 0-7. Friday’s foe, River Bluff’s first-year varsity program, is 2-1 with wins over Gilbert and Columbia. None of those teams compare to what the Jackets will face when their second season, Region 3-4A action, kicks off in two weeks.
“We’ve played three games; they haven’t won anything yet,” said Fort Mill coach Ed Susi. “We split the year up into two schedules and the non-region is the one that counts. If they want to go to the playoffs, they know they gotta’ win games in the region.”
Still, there is reason to be excited. Fort Mill last started a season 4-0 in 1983. That bunch of Yellow Jackets, coached by Ed Weldon, won its first five games, before falling to Pageland Central in the sixth game of the season. Weldon’s team finished 9-2, losing in the first round of the 3A state playoffs to Mid-Carolina.
The Yellow Jackets’ humming start to this season is a product of highly efficient offense. Between running backs Malik Long and Kryst, gangly junior QB Rogan Wells and receivers Taylor Hemphill and Brandon Plyler, Susi’s team has offensive weapons, all working around an offensive line returning most of its contributors from last season.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons,” said Kryst. “I think it’s gonna be tough for any team to defend us. When we have a two-running back set, they never know what they’re gonna get between me and Malik and our line is amazing, pretty much all seniors.”
It all starts with Kryst, Long and Wells in the backfield. Fort Mill’s offensive agenda isn’t complicated; Susi wants to pound the rock. The Yellow Jackets use a number of creative run plays, such as the jet sweep when the slot receiver goes in motion across the formation and takes a handoff, similar to the Minnesota Vikings’ use of Cordarrelle Patterson. Kryst and Hemphill get the bulk of the carries in those situations, their speed allowing them to burst for big gains if the offensive line holds the edge.
“We run a few plays that we try to hang our hat on, and then we tag each play, adding something different to it,” Susi explained. “I’m not telling anybody a thing they don’t know. We don’t change our blocking scheme or anything. Each play always has one or two different plays in it.”
The zone-read is another effective bludgeon for the Jackets. A junior standing about 6-foot-2, Wells is starting to fill up his frame and is a competent runner. In the zone read, Wells sticks the ball into the “mesh point” with the running back, before deciding whether to keep the ball or relinquish it, based on the movement of several key defenders. The recipient of many of Wells’ handoffs, Long, standing 5-foot-5, maybe 5-foot-6 and weighing close to 200 pounds, is a nightmare for opposing tacklers to hunt down.
“When he’s behind one of our linemen, he’s impossible to see,” said Kryst. “He’s a threat.”
Long leads the team’s ground assault with 247 yards rushing, while Kryst has added 209 and Wells 126. Kryst is dangerous in all three phases of the game, averaging 136 yards of offense per game when his kick returns are figured in. Plyler, Wells’ No. 1 passing target, has 212 yards receiving and also 81 in the return game. Hemphill does a little of everything. It’s a good mix for Susi.
“We’ve got two, three, good receivers on the outside and with Chandler and Malik taking care of running the ball inside and outside and Taylor Hemphill helping us out as a slot receiver,” said Susi, “that takes the load off of Rogan for sure.”
Bennett, his coaches and team watched Fort Mill live at the Battle on the Bluff, which opened the season at River Bluff’s brand new stadium. Fort Mill battered White Knoll 49-21 that night behind 35 unanswered points during the second and third quarters.
“Might be the best team they’ve ever had,” said Bennett, who coached Coastal Carolina’s program for nine years before starting football at River Bluff last year.
Maybe that was an opposing coach going for flattery, but the excitement around the school is noticeable. Susi commended the Fort Mill student section for being a noisy force, and of course folks around the community are taking notice too.
“Left and right people are talking about how we did,” said Kryst. “It’s all around; everyone knows about it.”
Keeping the sudden success in perspective will be imperative for the upstarts. Fort Mill ended Tuesday’s practice with the same huddle that concluded practices across the state. Susi asked his guys “how do you want to feel on Friday night?”
They’ve felt pretty good. So far.