The Fort Mill football team finished 7-5 and made the state playoffs last year out of a tough Region 3-AAAA, but the Yellow Jackets have their work cut out for them to repeat that feat this year after heavy losses through graduation.
After the season finished, coach Ed Susi and his staff set about that very work, retooling the their defensive scheme to better suit the team’s personnel this fall. The defense’s spring performance confirmed the Yellow Jackets are marching in the right direction.
“We needed to get our defense a little better and moving around,” said Susi, whose club will be more aggressive on that side of the line. “We were happy with the way our defense came out better, and we’re happy with the way they’re running to the ball.”
Fort Mill was up against the odds last fall, too. The team was sliding back in the Region 3 pack, but reeled off three straight wins to finish the regular season with a winning record and make the playoffs. The Yellow Jackets got bounced in the first round by eventual Class AAAA-DII champs Greenwood 42-7. If the team is going to make a return visit to the postseason promised land, it will be with 16 new starters.
Starters lost: 8 offense, 8 defense
Leaving in June: Fort Mill graduates several top offensive lineman, including Cooper Clegg – who is slated to walk on at Coastal Carolina – Zach Dulcie, Chris Norman and Scott DeMayo. Those guys also doubled as the Yellow Jackets’ defensive line too, making their exit doubly hurtful. Susi said the offensive line is his team’s biggest concern at the moment.
“There’s not a lot of experience there. We’re still searching for the right five,” Susi said.
The mass exodus is also tough because the Yellow Jackets will lose quarterback Rylan Wells. Running back Tony Godbolt and leading tackler Jaquel Wilson are also gone after they cross the stage in June.
Back in August: The Yellow Jackets’ top producer in the backfield last fall, Daryan Sanders, returns for his senior year, giving Susi’s squad dynamic talent in the backfield. He rushed for 775 yards and eight touchdowns last year while splitting time with Godbolt, and should be able to top 1,000 yards again.
Sophomore Rogan Wells, the younger brother of Rylan, and junior Clay Helvey will compete for the starting quarterback spot.
Susi cited Malik Long, a returning linebacker, as a player who stood out this spring on the defensive side, along with fellow backer Danny Marr. The onus will be on that position to help make up for the losses up front this fall. Defensive end Mason Jordan could help ease that burden based on his spring performance.
The spring skinny on other local teams:
Indian Land returns skill position players, but longtime head coach Michael Mayer has concerns where he only returns one starter each on the defensive and offensive lines.
“We’ll real thin O-L and D-L,” said Mayer. “We’ll probably have one or two sophomores playing on both sides.”
Indian Land had as many as 80 kids out for spring practice, while Mayer reported the adjacent middle school had 60 out, both numbers indicative of the area’s growing population that could see it shoot up to Class AAA in the next realignment jigsaw.
“We’re having to buy more helmets over the summer,” Mayer said. “It’s the most kids we’ve had out here ever.”
One player who will benefit from just playing on offense is freshman Rakym Felder. He returns to the Warriors’ offensive backfield after showing a promising flash of talent near the end of the 2012 season. Felder rushed for 608 yards and six touchdowns in just three games at running back, while racking up 50 tackles in the first eight games of the season at linebacker. He did all of that as a ninth-grader, suggesting the future is bright for the Warriors.
2012: It was a rough campaign in Region 4-AA for the Warriors, who finished 1-9 and 0-6 in the region. Despite the record, Indian Land made the Class AA postseason, but lost to Newberry 42-13 in the first round.
Starters lost: 6 offense, 6 defense
Leaving in June: Up front the Warriors will lose Jimmy Locklear, Curtis Groll, Brad Boone and Daron Massey, leaving a large hole on both sides of the ball. Filling those voids will be imperative for the Warriors, who have some skill position players who can make plays, with blocks of course.
Wide receiver Chris Barnes is also gone.
Back in August: Quarterback George Morris is back after starting about half of the games last year, while Austin Gordon will also return in the backfield alongside Felder.
Senior Chad Thomas is back at linebacker, as is Terrell White, another senior who moves up to outside linebacker after playing in the secondary last year. Sophomore Chris Blakeney and cornerback Manny Delgado, a senior, return in the defensive backfield.
Following up its first winning season in program history makes this an important spring for Nation Ford football. Coach Michael Allen has the program rolling in the right direction, but will have to continue that momentum despite the loss of the most successful senior class in the school’s infantile history.
Leaving in June: No question the Falcons will miss speedy receivers A.K. McCoy and Dijuan Ussery this fall. The duo stretched defenses and turned short gains into lengthy touchdowns last year, while helping Nation Ford to its first winning season in the school’s six-year history. McCoy caught 58 balls for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns and was selected to the North-South All-Star game, while Ussery pulled in 52 catches for 934 yards and 10 scores. Add in the impending graduation of running back Daniel Jackson, and Allen’s team has some gaping openings on the offensive side of the pigskin.
The Falcons also will need to replace tough and productive defensive starters like lineman Kenny Settle, Josh Driscoll, defensive back Will Visbeck.
Back in August: Even without his two favorite targets from last year, Dalton Helms is a quarterback to watch in York County. The junior threw for 2,440 yards and 24 touchdowns, and has drawn recruiting interest in football and baseball. Though the wideouts are gone, Helms will be able to call on a pair of tough tight ends, Hank Tuipulotu and Riley Hilton, as reliable targets.