Diving into the deepest parts of the ocean last fall, Lugoff-Elgin found the waters both rough and chilly. And, you might also want to throw unforgiving into the mix as the Demons came out of their first go ’round in class 5A winless in a 10-game season.
Having stated his school’s case before the South Carolina High School League’s executive committee and its protest committee as to why the Demons and Lady Demons’ athletic program should remain in 4A rather than make to move to the state’s largest division, L-E head football coach/athletic director Matt Campbell was rebuffed by both groups.
With no other avenue left to pursue, the Demons entered into the world of 5A. At times, it was not too pleasant as the baptism under fire finished with L-E being outscored by an average of 39-12 overall and 38-7 in its four Region 4 contests.
Campbell and his coaching staff tried to prepare their players for this new world, but sometimes, it takes seeing to make believers out of high school-aged boys.
“If it didn’t make you realize what we were going into then, definitely, you saw that the competition is better and the numbers are greater. There are just so many more athletes at that level,” Campbell said of the eye-opener his Demons received playing a regular dose of 5A foes.
The Demons took their lumps, but survived. As they embark on their second foray into 5A, they will, at least, know the level of their competition and that they need to take their game to a different and higher level. And as if more incentive is needed, L-E only has to look at its 2018 final record.
“You have to walk around with a chip on your shoulder. To not have won a game, you have to be disappointed with that. I know that I am terribly disappointed about that,” Campbell said in looking back at last fall. “To understand what it’s going to take to win at that level … it’s a challenge week in and week out.”
While some coaches may have ripped up the script and changed everything about the program from the playbook down to the color of the cleats, Campbell stayed the course. Coaches Mike Armstrong and Garrett Knight continued to work their players hard in the weight room to prepare them for the rigors which they will face this season.
What Campbell did pay particular attention to was the area of player development and getting the Demons stronger and ready to compete in the state’s premier classification. There was no other recourse, Campbell said, than to keep working and work even harder.
The players bought into the system and by the time preseason practice rolled around, L-E players were in the best possible shape.
“The kids came in and put in the time and the work,” said the former USC tight end and NFL offensive lineman. “The ones who were really committed to it changed their bodies. They also got faster, stronger and bigger. They came out this summer and worked hard.”
A season ago, L-E dressed out nine seniors in what was a young team. While there are 19 fourth-year players listed on the roster this time around, the Demons are still a young group albeit one with more experience. Case in point was that in last season’s opener at Westwood, the visitors did not have one player in the secondary with varsity experience.
Campbell likes his current squad, but said, once again, L-E does not have and will not dress out numbers comparable to most of their conference and non-conference 5A foes.
“For us to make it thought the season and stay injury-free,” he said, “it all begins in the weight room. We’ve been fortunate with that because our kids have done the work in there. We’ve been fortunate that our kids have stayed healthy.
“Accountability to your assignments and your techniques and things like that are important. Our margin of error is not as great as for someone with a lot larger team than we have.”
Campbell makes no bones about the Demons continuing to be a “run-first” offense. After a 2018 campaign in which L-E employed three different quarterbacks with freshman Jamari Harris finishing the season under center, this time around things are more defined.
After not playing a down last year, after having earned the starting job at quarterback as a freshman, 6-foot-2 junior Will Morris is back in the fold after having dealt with back issues. In 2017, Morris helped L-E into the second round of the 4A state playoffs after having thrown for 878 yards and eight touchdowns while also tucking the ball away 47 times for 197 yards with three trips to the end zone.
Battling for the starting job at signal-caller is Ryan Griggs, a 6-1 senior, who is returning to football after two seasons dealing with arm issues.
While not ready to name a starter with his team not having played a scrimmage game, Campbell said the duo collectively possesses too much athletic ability to not be on the field at the same time.
“I don’t know who’s going to play what,” Campbell said. “I do know this, they are both really good quarterbacks. They both have really good skill sets, they both show great leadership characteristics and both have a great grasp of the offense. They both work hard and they are both great competitors while, at the same time, being supportive of each other.
“I think that they both need to be on the field. The good thing about being a quarterback is that you know what everybody on the field is doing. As we go and start fine-tuning things as we get toward the end of camp, we will find out what we are going to do there.”
Behind whoever is taking snaps will be junior tailback Tyler Dixon and junior fullback/H-back Scotty Dean. Dixon burst onto the scene as a freshman, rushing for 753 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. Last year, his five touchdowns led the Demons while gaining 626 yards on the ground. Dixon will be the bell cow in the running game. Dean, a wrestler in the fall, has added weight to his frame while getting quicker. In addition to being able to carry the ball, Dean can also shift to tight end in some formations.
“Scotty is a smart kid. He’s gotten bigger and faster. He gives us the option of putting him in the backfield with Tyler, putting him back there by himself or, putting him at tight end,” Campbell said.
The Demons have three wide outs battling for playing time. Junior Josh Gary started last season at quarterback before being converted to a wide out. Senior Jarred Lee, a converted quarterback, and sophomore Blease Campbell, the latter the younger brother of Wofford offensive lineman Elliott Campbell and USC offensive lineman, Wyatt Campbell, rounds out the receiving corps. “Even having three is more than we’ve had in the past,” Campbell said of the wide out position.
Across the line, L-E has Parker Clements (6-6, 275) back at left tackle. The senior is closing in on 20 college offers with Kansas State being the latest. Across the way, senior Jarrett Koumas (6-3, 270) has locked down the right tackle post after having started there as a junior while having made great stride in the offseason. There is a dogfight going on for the starting right guard slot with sophomore Rob McIntyre being the early leader. senior Brandon Crane was brought to the varsity squad last season and has taken over the center duties while senior Kaleb Wise has moved from tight end to the interior as the right guard.
“With two quarterbacks who are a little more experienced and a little more knowledgeable about what we are trying to do,” Campbell said of the offense, “it does open up more options for us. Last year, we struggled passing the ball. I think we will be more efficient passing the ball this year.
“We’re still going to run the ball. I think that the run sets up the passing game and we have good backs. I also feel good about our line.”
Returning their two leading tacklers from a season ago, along with an experienced and tested secondary, puts the Demons ahead of the game on defense heading into the 2019 season.
Junior linebacker Ethan Hix is coming off a season in which his 116 tackles led the team, but were only two more than senior teammate Jasper Tucker, a defensive back.
Along the line, the Demons can be multiple but expect to line up in a three-man front more times than not.
Seniors Devin Stanley and Dan Guest will protect the edge at end. Stanly had 30 stops and half a sack last year while Guest was in on a dozen tackles. In between those two will be junior Aaron Miller at nose guard.
Led by Hix, the linebacking corps is one of the Demons’ strengths given the athleticism and depth along the second line of defense. A smart player, Campbell said Hix will call the signals on defense and has the ability to play in the middle of the field or, on the outside. Senior Heath Erwin started at quarterback as a freshman but has bulked up to where he has earned a starting spot at linebacker. Junior Zeke Meshach saw action on the varsity a season ago and has built off that experience while senior Omarion Samuels had 25 stops as a junior. Look for junior Caleb Baugh and sophomore Daniel Rowson to be in the mix and find their way onto the field.
“We have a lot of competition at linebacker,” Campbell said. “We feel good about our depth at linebacker.”
The Demon coaches have tried several talented players at different spots in the secondary which went from a question mark last year to one which returns talent and experience.
Tucker and Ethan Wolfe, senior who racked up 57 tackles last season, give L-E a pair of talented and hard-hitting safeties. Tahmaz Gilchrist, who had 16 tackles and tied for the team lead with a pair of picks as a sophomore last year, can play on the corner or, at safety.
One of the most pleasant surprises in camp has been the emergence of senior Chanden Whitener who missed the second half of last season and is making up for lost time and has locked down the job at right corner with his play in preseason practices. Senior Eli McGee had a pair of interceptions and 77 tackles in 2018 and is in a battle for playing time at corner.
“The more they play, the better they are going to be,” Campbell said of a secondary which has players who can play more than one position and may be asked to switch spots during the season.”
While not giving away any secrets, Campbell said the Demons will be more aggressive on defense in 2019.
Alex Bowers returns to handle the kicking chores for a third straight season. The 5-foot-5 junior has a lethal right leg and has been a weapon for the Demons since taking over the kicking duties. Accurate from the 30 inside, Bowers figures to get his share of work this season.
Coming off an 0-10 season, if would definitely help the Demons’ morale to pick up an early season victory against a rather daunting set of non-league foes. Campbell said he is not picky as to what game his game wins. He just wants to get off the schneid and get momentum on his side of the field.
“There’s never a time of year when confidence isn’t very important. Any time you can grab any strand of confidence, you have to take it,” he said when asked what an early season win would bring.
As for the goals, Campbell said the first for this squad is to win Region 4-5A. Before that, there is a primary goal which he team has to accomplish before it can move on to the next one.
“Goal number one is we need to win one game. That’s what is going to make us better than last year,” he said.
“We have to change our expectation levels. We have to go out expecting to win games and not go out just hope to win games.
“I think we’re a better team than we were last year, I really do. We just have to be better with our execution. Last year, whether it was offensively or defensively, when we executed well and did what we were supposed to do, we were very efficient. As soon as we got outside of the realm of what we were trying to get accomplished, we didn’t do anything. We need to be more consistent.”