The University of Miami fancies itself “Linebacker U.,” based on its history of producing NFL linebackers.
Since the school’s first varsity football season in 2007, South Pointe could stake a claim to the moniker “Defensive Back H.S.” Every year since Bobby Carroll started the program, and continuing with current coach Strait Herron, the Stallions have been blessed with talented defensive backs.
Some predominately played quarterback during high school, but later became defensive backs. Some, like the team’s current bunch, are excelling in the defensive secondary. South Pointe hits the road Friday night to face A.C. Flora in the 3A Upper State championship game at Columbia’s Memorial Stadium, thanks in large part to the Stallions’ defensive secondary, which has intercepted 13 passes in the last three games and at least two in each of the last five games.
The sources of the recent outbreak, and the program’s historical inclination toward standout secondary play, are the same.
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“Good athletes and great coaching,” said Herron. “The reason for the success is the philosophy; we’re gonna put good dudes over there.”
The plan at South Pointe is to put the quarterback – usually one of the best athletes – and the running back in place first. After those two positions, the next best athletes go to the defense. A school that produced the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Tay Hicklin, Corey Neely, Devin Pearson and Josh Massey has another good group this season.
“It really started from Stephon, but it’s continued since he left,” said 6-foot-2 safety Marveon Mobley. “So, we take a lot of pride in that.”
Seniors Mobley and Devion Williams have been impactful for the Stallions Mobley has followed up last season’s area-high eight interceptions with six this season. His interception return for a touchdown sparked the Stallions’ 56-0 first round playoff win over Blue Ridge. The deer-like Williams made two crucial interceptions in last week’s 23-20 overtime victory that knocked out Belton-Honea Path. In 13 games, South Pointe has 24 interceptions.
“(Secondary) coach (Calvin) McCullough tells us all the time to go after the ball. We don’t need big hits as a secondary; take the ball away,” said Mobley on Tuesday. “We go after the ball every day.”
They’re augmented by a talented pair of juniors, Nick McCloud and Chris Smith. Smith has come on strong in the last month, making five interceptions during that time. Two came in a big win over Broome that clinched the Region 3-3A title, before a hat-trick of picks in the second round 19-15 win over Seneca.
At 6-foot-3, McCloud is a modern defensive back prototype. Also a wide receiver, McCloud, who is a close family friend of Gilmore’s, made his first interception of the season last week against Belton-Honea Path, one of five passes the Stallions picked off in a bullish defensive performance.
“Mostly, it’s the technique and the way we’ve been focusing at practice now,” said Smith, who is getting recruiting interest from a number of big schools, including Louisville. “We’ve been taking in everything as if it’s a game situation and that’s helped out a lot.”
The pipeline isn’t empty either. Sophomore Kendarius Frederick and freshman Derion Kendrick – “he’s gonna be special,” says Herron – both have an interception this season and play extensively. Defensive secondary coaches Pat Burris Sr. – a Rock Hill native who played defensive back at Arkansas in the late 1980s – and McCullough have been at South Pointe since the school started playing varsity football, and have helped maintain the pipeline, influencing every good defensive back who has passed through the school’s halls.
“Very old school,” said Mobley, describing his two position coaches. “But they’re great coaches. They teach us the fundamentals, the basics.”
South Pointe’s secondary has a bit of everything this season: two seniors, two juniors and two underclassmen. Two tall defensive backs and two speedsters. The Stallions can cover every kind of receiver, plus they all share an innate athleticism, and a hunger to score once they force turnovers. After playing a bunch of run-based teams in region play, this group has been unshackled, and not by any scheme change.
“We’ve just got a new energy about us and I just think that’s helped us,” Herron said. “It’s really them just making plays.”
South Pointe’s game against A.C. Flora will be the Stallions’ seventh straight turkey bowl. The first, during the 2008 undefeated state championship season, was built on defensive scores. Pat Burris Jr. and Devonte Holloman terrorized opposing offenses leading the team’s secondary to 23 interceptions and five pick-6’s. In a fitting finale, the Stallions intercepted Northwestern standout Justin Worley three times to beat the Trojans 35-14 in the state title game. That paradigm has influenced the years of stellar secondary play that followed.
“Once we started that tradition, the kids just took it and it became more than a tradition,” said Burris Sr. “It’s just South Pointe’s way.”