Photo by Gabriel Stovall Lovejoy’s secondary lost all but one of its starters from last season’s state runner-up team. But 2012 unit has been just as productive. From left, Montrell Custis, Jarrid Williams, El Malik Roberson, Brandon Davis, Cinwon Whitehead and Tyrell Brown.
HAMPTON — At the beginning of every game, Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones asks the referees the same question.
“What is pass interference today?,” Jones asks.
It speaks to the physicality he wants his Wildcat secondary to bring to the field every game.
It’s a symbol of the aggressive, chip-on-their-shoulder nature that this group wears as a badge of honor.
The starting secondary of Tyrell Brown (cornerback), Brandon Davis (cornerback/safety), Cinwon Whitehead (safety) and El-Malik Roberson (cornerback) have combined for 104 tackles, 57 pass breakups and eight interceptions.
Sophomore safety Montrell Custis — cousin of star tailback and Georgia Tech commitment Travis Custis — has almost been like a fifth starter with his 38 tackles and an interception, while senior Jarred Williams has chipped in 12 tackles, nine pass breakups and two blocked punts.
Only Roberson was in last year’s starting lineup for the Wildcats’ Class AAAA state title run.
Former Lovejoy starters — and now current Division I football players — Rico McWilliams (South Carolina) and Jermaine Hough (Jacksonville State) are gone which seemingly would have left a huge hole for Jones to fill.
Yet with Brown and Whitehead transferring in and with the return of talented speedster Davis and the emergence of Montrell Custis, the task of reconstructing a talented secondary was not so daunting according to head coach Al Hughes.
“This was the only group on our defense that we had to be completely rebuilt,” Hughes said. “They’ve played great. They’ve done exceptionally well.”
Hughes said each player brings his own specific strength to help compliment the unit, which is why when asked, none of them will call themselves the head of the group.
“We all lead each other,” they said in unison.
“We’re all just being physical out there,” Brown said. “We’re all trying to be coachable, disciplined. Everybody is out here playing for each other.”
Lovejoy’s pass defense hasn’t seemed to lose much of its stride from last year’s unit that gave up just four points a game. In fact, with the move up into Class AAAAAA — and the stiffer competition that comes with it — it’s arguable that this year’s performance could be more impressive.
Jones said this year’s group is the fastest he’s ever been around in 21 years of coaching. But speed is not the only — or maybe even most important — trait of an elite defensive backfield.
“These guys are intelligent football players,” Jones said. “They study film before practice, after practice. They take it home and watch some more.”
“We know how to dissect an offense,” Whitehead said. “Like for instance, when we played Alpharetta, we knew they liked to pass. But we saw them on film so much that we knew what routes were coming just by the way they were lining up. We already knew how to defend them.”
Case in point: In Lovejoy’s 43-24 victory over Alpharetta on Sept. 14., the Wildcats squared off against Arizona State commitment Josh Dobbs. On the season, Dobbs has passed for 3,354 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Against Lovejoy, Dobbs was 8-of-20 passing for a season-low 166 yards. He threw a touchdown and a pick and was held to his second lowest quarterback rating (66) of the season.
Friday’s second round playoff opponent will present another offensive challenge. The Blue Devils are led by Anthony Jennings, who has committed to SEC powerhouse LSU.
Jennings has passed for 2,178 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 719 yards and nine scores. And although Jennings with his dual threat abilities will offer up some different challenges for Lovejoy, Davis believes that he and his coverage unit teammates will be ready.
“I heard they like to pass about 85 percent of the time,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter to us. We’re just going to compete and stay in our man coverage and we’ll be fine.”
The winner of Friday’s game plays the Grayson-North Gwinnett winner in the quarterfinals. And while it may be tempting to look ahead, Brown said that the team’s lofty goals will keep them grounded.
“We’re a very confident group,” Brown said. “A lot of people are doubting us because we’re a Clayton County school or because of our region, but we’re just going to go out and prove them wrong.”