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Young Demons take plunge into 5A ranks

Posted: August 6, 2018 1:36 p.m.
Updated: August 7, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Photo by goflashwin.com/

TYRIK RICHARDSON LED ALL L-E players with 181.5 tackles from his linebacker post last fall.

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There were times this past offseason that Lugoff-Elgin head football coach and athletic director Matt Campbell was spending nearly as many hours either discussing or, being actively involved in, the school’s fight to remain in the class 4A ranks or, at least, finding a happy medium as to a new region after his appeal fell on deaf ears.

Eight years after the school’s sports teams were elevated from 3A to 4A, L-E’s surging enrollment earned the Demons and, Lady Demons, entry into the state’s largest school ranks. Campbell and his football team will be the first to test the 5A waters this season.

Once the South Carolina High School League’s Board of Directors rejected L-E’s appeal to stay in 4A or, at least be moved to a more Midlands-centric conference, Campbell accepted his program’s fate and got on with the business of football and trying to build on last year’s 7-5 campaign which ended with a loss to Berkeley in the second round of the 4A Lower State playoffs.

Campbell, a former USC tight end and NFL offensive lineman, said the Demons have no recourse other than to put their big boy pants on. With just 11 seniors returning, L-E will have to grow up fast.

“It’s going to be experience for us,” Campbell said of what his 2018 team lacks. “We went and cleared off the roster the other day and there were just 12 guys who were on our varsity roster last year who are coming back. There’s going to be a lot of fresh faces, a lot of young kids this season. We have to get them experience and get them over that anxiety.”

The Demons are part of Region 4-5A, a loop which includes Blythewood, Irmo, Spring Valley and Sumter. L-E is the smallest school on the block. Campbell said the learning curve in going to 5A is real, rather than imagined.

“It’s going to be big because some of the teams that we’re going to be competing with are going to be 600 or, 700 students larger than us. You’re talking about us combining with North Central (to be on equal footing,)” Campbell said of the challenges for his program.

“It’s the simple process of selection of the number of athletes to choose from. We’re going to have to do a great job of developing our young players, retaining them in the program and, developing them in the weight room.”

 

Quarterbacks The Demons knew they would be without all-purpose threat and part-time quarterback Chandler Price to graduation last spring. What Campbell and company had to adjust to was losing returning starter Will Morris to a season-ending arm injury. That led Josh Gary, who was brought up as a wide receiver in the playoffs last season, to being the next man up under center without having attempted a pass or, have taken a snap in a varsity contest. In spite of that, Campbell is excited about the potential of the 5-foot-11, 165-pounder who was a varsity starter for L-E on the basketball court last winter. “Obviously, you go in expecting Will (Morris) to be back but, the circumstances dictated that he’s not going to be back. Josh Gary has stepped in and has done a fantastic job for us. He’s very coachable and energetic. “He’s guy who is going to be able to run around a good bit. We may put the ball in his hands a few times and let him carry it. Will was more of a pocket passer. With Josh, you’re taking a good athlete and putting the ball in his hands.”

 

Running Backs Each year, it seems as if the Demons roll out talented tailbacks from a virtually endless stable. This year is no different. Sophomore Tyler Dixon (5-9, 160) burst on the scene in the middle of the 2017 season and led the team with 753 rushing yards while scoring seven touchdowns. Alongside him is senior Randall Brown (5-9, 190) who displayed his big-play potential with a 78-yard scoring run in the season opener at Camden last year. Brown finished with 665 yards on the ground with six touchdowns. Add in sophomore fullback McCoy McElhaney (5-9, 210) and the ground game will be one of the most dependable areas on the field this fall. 

 

Receivers Senior wide out Caleb McDonald (5-4, 145) is the team’s leading returning pass catcher after having made 10 grabs for 147 yards as a junior. Campbell said McDonald is the “smartest player on the team who can, honestly, play anywhere on the field.” Jordan Williams, a 5-11, 152-pound junior, has made the transition from basketball to now, adding wide receiver to his resume. Scotty Dean, a 5-10, 185-pound junior, has been moved to tight end as has 5-foot-11 junior and former lineman/fullback Kaleb Wise. 

 

Offensive Linemen “It’s probably the biggest hit that we took,” Campbell said of a large and senior-laden offensive front which had three seniors sign with colleges --- two with Division I programs --- last spring. Parker Clemens, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound former backup tight end, has been moved to left tackle. Returning starters and seniors Auston Lee (6-1, 260) and Cody Russell (6-1, 324) will man the left guard and center posts, respectively. Sophomore and nationally placed wrestler Drake Davis (6-3, 303) will be at right guard while junior Jarrett Koumas (6-3, 250) will be at right tackle in a rebuilt front that lists seven offensive lineman which, Campbell said, is a concern. “We’re fortunate that we have some guys who are stepping in who may not have the size, the strength or, the experience that we had there last year but, we still feel good about our guys. They’re smart guys. It all comes down to execution and putting a body on a body. They’re learning and improving every day.

 

Offensive Outlook Not surprisingly, given the amount of returning experience and talent, combined with a new starting quarterback and new faces on the line, the Demons will rely heavily on the ground game this season. “We’re going to be who we are. We’re a run-first team; it has always been that way,” Campbell said. “We’re going to base our passes off that and, Josh Gary has the ability to do both. He has shown us that his is able to learn the offense and has shown what he can do. He’s really progressed nicely.

“We do have some really good seniors on offense like Caleb McDonald and Randall Brown along with Cody Russell and Auston Lee on the offensive line. Those are the guys we are going to have to lean on.”

 

Defensive Linemen The Demons will line up in both a four- and a three-man front this season and the front line features both size and experience. Justin Wall, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior, will line at one end with senior Caiman Welch (6-2, 205) on the other side. Wall is coming off a 109-tackle season in which he rang up four sacks. Welch has been moved from linebacker where he registered 108 stops with a sack in 2017. Senior Kevin Bowie (6-2, 276) will be at tackle/nose after while senior Xavien Robinson (6-2, 280) is back along the interior after having had 11 tackles as a junior. Senior David Pillard (6-2, 210) will also see action along the front line.  

 

Linebackers Last fall, Tyrik Richardson (5-9, 175) could be found everywhere the ball was located as he was among the Midlands’ leaders with a team-best 181.5 tackles with 36 solos and six stops behind the line of scrimmage. This season, the senior will team with junior Jasper Tucker (6-0, 175) to give L-E a pair of “get to the football”, ball-hawking outside linebackers. Sophomore Ethan Hix (6-0, 221) had 40 stops at defensive end last year and will be at inside linebacker while junior Blaize Watson (5-8, 175) rounds out a solid core of four patrolling the second line of defense.

 

Defensive Backs If there is one area which has been a primary focus in the spring and preseason practices, this is it. Without a returning starter in the secondary, the Demons have moved junior Eli McGee, a starting jayvee tailback last season, to cornerback. Chanden Whitener has also been getting reps at cornerback with Daran Pagan having the leg up at safety. Expect to see players like Gabe Tester, Jalen Summers, Ethan Wolfe and Antonio Goodwin finding their way onto the field, as well. “There’s a lot of options there. We’re going to let them fight it out and see where the dust settles,” Campbell said.

 

Special Teams Sophomore Alex Bowers gave the Demons a weapon in the kicking game last season with his accuracy on extra points while also being a threat on field goals. A year older and tested, the sophomore will be counted on to provide points this time around. Senior Evan Freier has provided Bowers with a stiff challenge. Finding a replacement for graduated punter Josh Boone has been on ongoing competition with Wolfe having the early lead. 

 

Defensive Outlook “You go over to defense and we’ve done some shuffling around,” Campbell said of a multiple defensive set which can show a 4-3 or, a 3-4 look. “Tyrik Richardson was kind of the pillar of our defense last year; he’s fast and he’s furious. We have some big kids across the front. We have some young guys on the defensive front like Justin Wall, who is going to be here for two more years and who is going to have to pick up a leadership role. We just have to take it and run with it.”

 

Season Outlook Coming off a seven-win season and a playoff victory carried over into the offseason. Campbell said he saw a new, more confident attitude from his team. “The expectation level has risen. They expect more from themselves and of their teammates,” he said. At the same time, Campbell knows the competition level will increase exponentially. “It’s going to be a battle,” he said of the jump into 5A. “It is big schools and solid teams. Sumter is a scary team. Spring Valley made a great run last year. Blythewood has a great history and always has a lot of talent and, then, you have Irmo. It’s going to be a challenge, week in and week out.”

 

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