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Stallions rely on speed, steadiness

The gold rush is over at South Pointe, but there is plenty of steam left in the stampede.

For the first year since the Stallions played varsity football in 2006, there are no Division I players on the roster. Coaches from around the country won't be flying into Charlotte and driving a rental to Rock Hill.

No Nick Sabin, Steve Spurrier, Dabo Sweeney, no other schools from the ACC or the SEC will be lined up at first-year coach Strait Herron's door trying to woo his players their way.

That has been the case the last five years. It started with Stephon Gilmore and continued until his senior season in 2008 when DeVonte Holliman joined the team. They will be junior starters in South Carolina's secondary this season.

South Pointe went 15-0 and won the Class AAAA Division II state championship that year, but the team was still loaded and included a pair of top-rated defensive ends in Jadeveon Clowney and Gerald "Lil G'' Dixon. They led the Stallions back to the title game last season as a Class AAA team, but South Pointe lost to a Myrtle Beach team led by Notre Dame-bound quarterback Everett Golson.

Clowney was regarded as the top player in the nation by most recruiting services and was USA Today's Defensive Player of the Year. Clowney and Dixon signed with South Carolina after leading the team to a 13-2 record.

Three players are vying for the spot vacated by the two departed stars: Jeremy Hopkins, Zeke Rodney and Matt Meyer.

Justin Winstead, who moved over from Rock Hill High to be Herron's defensive coordinator, said the difference will be a smaller unit playing a different style.

"We will have a lot of speed on the field when we send out our defense,'' he said. "They will be small, but they will be quick to the ball and will get after it. The line is a work in progress and will come along.

"Our strength will be our secondary, one of the best I've seen and I saw some good ones at Rock Hill. Tay Hicklin and Buddy Byers are the cornerbacks, JaRyan Jennings the strong safety and one of our best, Corey Neely, the free safety.''

And there will be another, a defensive back used more as an outside linebacker along with Jennings. Three defensive backs, two spurs and several players competing for the final spot.

Defensive ends will get the most attention. How, folks are already asking, do you replace Clowney and Dixon? The answer is simple. They can't be replaced and will go down in school lore as two of the best ever. What Winstead has to do is find players who are steady and can get the job done.

"It's tough to follow in the foot steps of those two guys,'' Meyer said. "I backed up JD (Clowney) last year and he helped me. We got ahead a lot so it meant more reps for me.

"JD told me I was good and that he liked my quickness. He would tell me to get after it and give all I had. He said I'd be able to take over for him when he was gone. And it helped to get reps because I felt what it was like to play in front of a big crowd.''

Hopkins played behind Dixon, and like Meyer, saw plenty of field time. Playing behind Dixon, he said, was an extra bonus.

"Teams would run away from JD and Dixon wore them (running backs) out,'' Hopkins said. "When we went in, they were so tired and beat up that it made it easier for me.

"We have some big shoes to fill with both of those guys gone, but we are ready and it actually helped us. Coaches would come to practice and games to see them, and that gave us a chance to be seen. That made us play harder.''

Herron targeted Winstead from the get-go but at first the chips weren't falling in place. Herron had an opening and needed an offensive coordinator because he had been in charge of the defense and was ready to do it again. He wanted Justin Hardin, the head coach at Weddington, N.C.

But another coach left and Herron was able to hire Hardin and Winstead. But there was still a need for a defensive line coach and that was filled, to be honest, more like a pot of gold landing in Herron's lap.

Hardin noticed on the district Web site that South Pointe had an opening for an art teacher. A coach who teaches art. Yes indeed. Hardin had that combination in Mike Zapolnik (Coach Zap) at Weddington who he said was his "right-hand'' man.

Herron took the information to South Pointe principal Al Leonard, and Coach Zap was hired to coach the offensive line and teach art.

"Mr. Leonard has been great supporting me in my new position,'' Herron said. "He wants us to succeed and cares about all of the programs at South Pointe and not just sports.

"We lost some good players, but the ones we have want to make their on names on the field while keeping our tradition going. I walked into the locker room Friday morning before our first practice and it was empty. I walked down the hall and all the players were in the mini gym.

"Tay (Hicklin) had called a players' meeting. He and a couple of other seniors felt they needed to talk to the team before we got started for real. It was a good thing. It showed we had leadership and players who are dedicated to what we want to do.''