Posted: 3:47 pm Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009
By Jason Lieser
Neither Atlantic nor Pahokee was able to schedule a spring game, so it has been months since their players hit anyone else on another team. Couple that with the fact that Pahokee is opening a brand-new stadium and it will produce a raucous atmosphere for Friday’s game.
That won’t be a problem for either side.
“I want them to have fun,” Atlantic coach Andre Thaddies said of his players. “Take the excitement in. I’ve got some rowdy kids and the more rowdy they get the better.”
Pahokee starts the season as the most loaded team in the area despite bring back fewer than half of the starters from the 2008 team that went 12-2 and won the Class 2B title. Graduation rarely hurts the Blue Devils and it was especially mitigated this year because WRs Chris Dunkley and Fred Pickett transferred to Pahokee. Couple those two with Dennis Hall and Zachary Allen (and possibly De’Joshua Johnson at some point, if he shifts from quarterback) and it’s clear no team in the area has a better receiving corps.
Johnson will start the year at quarterback, though that is not his natural position. He is exceptionally gifted as a runner, but was not particularly impressive as a passer in his few starts last year. All indications, however, point to improvement in his game during the off-season. He is more comfortable sitting in the pocket and reading the field than he was in December.
“He’s more mature,” Dunkley said. “He still runs, but he’ll wait the other two seconds. Last year he wouldn’t. Now he waits for stuff to develop. He trusts his teammates and the line.”
Defensively, Pahokee has its typical cast of fast, physical defensive backs. Merrill “Bud” Noel is the Blue Devils’ top cover man and can play multiple positions. No one has seen S Raheam Buxton in extended action, but his physical tools got him a scholarship to Miami. Dunkley will also see some time in the defensive backfield this week. Allen is a LB/DE who infiltrates offensive lines and picks up running backs in the likeness of former Blue Devil Brandin Hawthorne. Several of the linemen go both ways and none are more difficult to contain that Richard Ash.
Atlantic went 10-0 in the 2008 regular season, albeit against a relatively soft schedule. The Eagles lost their second-round playoff game to South Fork in Class 5A. This year they move up to Class 6A in a district with Boca Raton, Seminole Ridge, Park Vista and Palm Beach Central.
The Eagles return 13 starters from that team, including seven on offense. QB Mark Leal is the area’s best quarterback and is a threat with his legs and his arm. Like Johnson, Leal is surrounded by weapons. WR James Louis is an elite receiver committed to Ohio State. Transfer WR Quadarias Mireles was John I. Leonard’s top playmaker last year and should be even better on a team with other stars. RBs Donnell Kirkwood and Obed Jean give Atlantic a thunder and lightning backfield.
“They’re trying to get the ball to their stud, No. 7,” Pahokee defensive coordinator Rick Lammons said, referring to Louis’ jersey number. “They have a team full of athletes, some guys who can make things happen. You have to keep them contained. Don’t let them get loose. Don’t give them room.”
Defensively, Atlantic plays several players both ways, including Louis. Louis will play cornerback and safety against Pahokee this week. MLB Eluzies Vil is one of the area’s most underrated linebackers. DT D.J. McCellion is a BCS recruit and usually requires a double-team.
“I’d say there are some good matchups,” Pahokee coach Blaze Thompson said. “Their speed at wide receiver and DB is comparable to ours. I would argue that Chris and Josh and Fred are some of the best wide receivers in the nation. They’re going to have their hands full.”
Lammons believes Louis is as talented as some of Pahokee’s receivers, but said he has five or six players who can cover him one-on-one. It has been pointed out numerous times, and rightly so, that Pahokee’s defensive backs practice against some of the nation’s best receivers every day.
In defending Louis, Lammons said he will rotate who lines up against him and wants those players to lock him up at the line of scrimmage in order to alter his routes and Leal’s timing.
One of those players could be Dunkley.
“For his sake, I hope not,” Dunkley said.
And if Louis lines up at corner against Dunkley?
“My eyes will light up if he is,” Dunkley said.
Dunkley and Louis, the top two wide receivers in the area, seem to have had a friendly rivalry dating back to last year, though they have never played against each other. Both players will look to outdo the other at receiver Friday.
“You could say it’s a competition,” Louis said. “If I see him on the field, it makes me play better.”
Pahokee’s defense has experience playing against dual-threat quarterbacks thanks to daily scrimmages against Johnson, but Leal has a better arm than the Blue Devils normally see. Leal has a similar skill set as both of the quarterbacks who beat Pahokee last year — Glades Central’s L.J. Thomas and Byrnes’ Chase Dodd. He would likely fall somewhere between those two in terms of overall talent.
It will be interesting to see how often Pahokee blitzes Leal and how many they send. The Blue Devils generally send a lot of pressure at opposing quarterbacks, but that can backfire against a player like Leal who can react quickly and pick up open receivers or get outside the pocket and create a play on the run.
“Honestly, in high school, he’s in the top echelon of quarterbacks,” Lammons said. “We intend to pressure this guy. Tons of pressure. We’re not going to give him the luxury of five or six seconds to deliver the ball down field. I’m sure if a team gives him that luxury, he will do major damage.
“You gotta pick your times to blitz this kid. He has some speed. You have to be particular about how you blitz him and try to contain him. We will not be afraid to blitz him, though, because we can’t give him five or six seconds to deliver the ball.”
Thaddies will have to be cautious about blitzing Johnson as well.
Johnson was adequate last season when he moved from receiver to quarterback (prior to that change, he has been as dynamic and impressive as any receiver in the count, including Rantavious Wooten). His throwing form and his decision-making were average, but he was nearly impossible to sack and he played well enough to lead Pahokee to a championship.
“Mark can run, but not like De’Joshua,” Thaddies said. “De’Joshua can throw, but it’s nothing like Mark.
“De’Joshua Johnson — he’s a deadly kid to have the ball in his hands. He runs better than he can throw, but he’s skilled enough to throw the ball.”
That’s a pretty fair assessment.
In the off-season, though, Johnson made strides and Perez did not outplay him in practice to take the job away from him. To Johnson’s credit, he has great football intelligence and a complete handle of the playbook. He knows where every receiver is supposed to be on virtually every play, which helps him go through his progressions quickly. Like most Blue Devils quarterbacks, he is a good improviser. If the ball is snapped over his head and he has to figure things out on the fly, watch out. Several Pahokee receivers said his arm strength and accuracy have improved demonstrably since the end of the last season.
“My confidence in Josh is in his playmaking ability,” Thompson said. “He’s got the ability to extend the play and make good decisions. He’s going to make things happen.”
Thompson also wants back-up Emanuel Perez to play this week, but it is hard to imagine that happening unless Pahokee has a big lead.
It seems unlikely that Pahokee will run away with this one, although the Blue Devils thumped Atlantic 46-0 in 2006, but Hall predicts the offense will thoroughly overwhelm the Eagles.
“We’ll probably get about 50 points,” Hall said. “I know we’re going to get 50. We’ve got a lot of weapons. If you double Dunk, who you going to put on Pickett? If you double Pickett, who you going to put on me?”
Louis found Hall’s prediction amusing.
“That’s just a little trash talk,” Louis said. “He’s trying to bring some excitement to it. I don’t think we’re giving up that many points.”
I agree, actually, and I do question whether the Blue Devils players realize how talented Atlantic is. But I see Pahokee will scoring around 30, though, which will be enough to win.