The skill players at Northwestern have gotten a lot of credit this year, and deservedly so.
But to get to 9-1, win nine straight games and the Region 3-AAAA title, a team has to have balance across the board.
The Trojans fit the bill.
Powerful scoring offense. A better-than-average offensive line. A very good defense in the mold of those of the past, dominant at linebacker.
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This year's linebacking group consists of Jerel Miller, Greg Paige and Tijah Green. Paige is the middle linebacker, Miller plays the strong side and Green mans the weak side.
Miller is regarded by several scouting services as the top junior linebacker in the state this season. Paige, a senior, started last year and had his moments. Green, another junior, is the newcomer of the bunch.
They have combined for 290 tackles.
Ray McCleod, the Trojans' linebackers coach, knows how important the position is to a defense. McCleod was a starting linebacker on the first Northwestern state championship team in 1989.
"Our three starters are the strongest players on the team and they are prime examples of what 'student/athlete' means,'' McCleod said. "They are smart, coachable and do anything we ask without questioning it.
"They complement each other well and each can play all three linebacker spots. And they are not big into stats, only that we win. Seldom does one of them come to up to me after a game and want to know how many tackles he had.''
Miller said that's true to the bone. He led the Trojans in tackles last season but this year, Paige is in front of him, 130-116. But with Northwestern returning to the level of play its become accustomed to after two lean seasons, Miller is enjoying winning.
Just one more win Friday and the Trojans will 10-1. First, they have to beat rival Rock Hill at District Three Stadium in their 43rd meeting, the final game of the regular season for both.
The Trojans have been on a tear this season, quarterback Will King shattering every school passing record. King and his offense have been the talk of the town, but Northwestern's defense has been overlooked.
The Trojans have allowed just 147 points, an average of 14.7 per game. And they have given up 2,518 yards, an average of 251.8, which is respectable.
"People have told us about when coach McCleod played here, how he was small but could really hit,'' Paige said. "And we are aware that over the years Northwestern has put out some good linebackers. We try to maintain that reputation.
"I worked hard to get stronger and faster this season and that's why my numbers have gone up. It helps that we are having a good season and I've got Jerel and Tijah beside me.''
Imagine what if feels like to get run over by a train. McCleod pointed out that each of his linebackers weigh more than 200 pounds, one of the biggest groups, size-wise, he's had.
Miller is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, Paige 5-9, 212 and Green 5-11, 210. And they love to hit.
Page said his best came against Spartanburg. He broke through the line and cleaned out the Vikings' quarterback -- he said he hit him with all the force he has.
Green's came against Fort Mill when he blew around the end and wiped out a Yellow Jacket who caught a screen pass.
Green's was a big play, a hit near the goal line that dropped a Clover running back in his tracks. Green has seen his stock go up this season and McCleod said it's because he's one of the team's hardest workers.
"It was tough last year being a backup and having to stand and watch most of the time,'' Green said. "I won a starting job during our preseason scrimmages. Coach McCleod told me he'd decided I'd be starting and that made me play harder.
"Since our offense does so good, we don't get much attention. We use that to get motivated to go out and show we also have a good defense.''
When two at a time were asked to give one word that best describes the other, they said Miller in a playmaker, Paige is a headhunter and Green has savvy.
McCleod has a fourth linebacker and the best way to describe him is dependable. When one of the starters needs a breather, Thomas Marshall is the first off the bench.
"My main focus is Greg,'' McCleod said. "All of my guys can play and play well, but this is Greg's senior season and I'm going to leave him on the field as much as possible.''
ROCK HILL AT NORTHWESTERN
• When: 8 p.m. Friday
• Where: District Three Stadium, Rock Hill
• Records: Rock Hill 4-6, 1-4 Region 3-AAAA; Northwestern 9-1, 5-0
• Series: Rock Hill leads 22-20
• Tickets: $7. Northwestern will sell tickets in its cafeteria from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. today and Friday. Rock Hill will sell tickets on the same days at the same times in the school's A Building.