This was supposed to be a toss-up question to Tajh Reid-Stanley, a gimme that would get a reporter’s interview moving in the desired direction.
Asked how much harder the York Cougars’ wide receivers corps is to cover in practice this fall, the senior defensive back said, “it’s a little bit more easy,” further explaining that he’s a veteran and has a firmer grip on what he’s supposed to do.
Junior receiver La’Darius Allison stepped to the side, his arms spread in the international symbol for “come on, man!”
“He’s tripping because I’ll be merking him in practice,” Allison said, using the youthful vernacular for besting Reid-Stanley repeatedly. “But it’s always a battle between the DBs and receivers in practice.”
Neither was wrong. Reid-Stanley and the York defense are stronger in 2017 - the Cougar stoppers sacked Clover 9.5 times last week - but so is the entire team. York entered region play last year 1-4 but head to Richland Northeast Friday with a 4-1 record and four straight victories.
Allison is particularly better this year. His 11 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns in last Friday’s rivalry win announced his potential to another couple thousand fans, something he’s intent on doing regularly this fall.
“Last year we had a lot of senior receivers so I just waited my time,” said Allison, a diamond earring shimmering in each ear after a sunny Wednesday practice. “I’ve got to become a leader, lead by example. When I make plays my other receivers make plays.”
York’s offense is on pace to have more plays of 20-plus yards in 2017, and from a greater variety of players:
Allison, a lean 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, leads York with 23 catches and four touchdowns, while also averaging 39 yards on a couple of kickoff returns. He’s played multiple positions - wildcat QB, free safety or any of the wide receiver spots. Offensive coordinator Knox Baggett shuffles Allison between the X position out by the sideline and the Y (slot). His size, athleticism and mobility make him a dangerous midfield receiver.
“He’s really tough to cover inside, with a linebacker or safety,” said Baggett.
Allison “can play anywhere,” said York coach Bobby Carroll. “Wide receiver is his forte right now but he’s a really great defensive back. He’s just an all-around great athlete, works hard, good size, good speed. He’ll be the first to tell you he hasn’t reached his full potential; he can get a lot stronger and faster.”
Baggett said that Allison’s knowledge has increased as he moves around to different positions and that his practice habits and focus on technique also elevated as a junior.
“He’s gotten better at releases and top of the route stuff to get open,” said Baggett, “and not just depending on being the best athlete.”
The emergence of another York receiver, 6-foot-6, 185-pound senior Zion Walker, helped Allison’s progression. Walker gives York a legitimate No. 2 receiving threat, absent last year when senior Jae’vion Matthews was the Cougars’ only real hope of stretching the field offensively. Walker has 11 catches, including four touchdowns.
“It’s two threats, many more actually,” said Reid-Stanley. “You can’t just focus on one person.”
Allison took an unofficial visit to South Carolina and has interest from schools including East Carolina and Limestone, but no offers yet. York coaches recently emailed a highlight film with clips from Allison’s first four games to colleges across the country. A glimpse at the clips should get coaches on the phone to Carroll’s office.
With Allison, Walker and senior Shaq Harris, strong-armed QB Tanner McKinney is piloting a more balanced passing arsenal. McKinney’s unexpected arrival from Northwestern has worked out for York, just like most everything else so far this season.
“Those kids last year when we’re 1-4 played just as hard as these guys,” said Carroll. “Things just didn’t bounce our way last year, and we’ve had some things go our way this year.”
Maybe the biggest benefit for York football so far this season: the lack of drama away from the gridiron. The Cougars’ 2016 team never recovered from its two best players transferring the weekend before the season started, a funk that only worsened when two separate players had parents die later in the year.
There was the possibility for some soap opera stuff when QB Tanner McKinney transferred in from Northwestern in August. York appeared to have a settled QB situation with junior Ethan Mitchell, who started the second half of last season. The two competed for the starting job and McKinney eventually won, playing the entire game against Clover. Mitchell is a solid athlete and now plays receiver or safety; he had two catches against the Blue Eagles and York teammates and coaches are encouraged by how he handled the QB completion.
“Ethan is a football player,” said offensive coordinator Knox Baggett. “You could put him at center and he’s gonna give you everything he’s got.”
“Ethan moved on when he found out,” said junior receiver La’Darius Allison. “He didn’t let it get to his head.”