JOHNSTON, S.C. --- When Strom Thurmond High School coach Lee Sawyer says his 2010 team might be the fastest group he's had at the school, it's not a statement to take lightly.
The Rebels have only gone 22-4 over the past two seasons, falling just short of the Class AA Upper State title game each time.
Two years ago, at home, a freak play found a ball settling into the hands of a streaking Central tight end as two Rebels defenders crashed into one another. Last year, the opportunity was lost to a turnover.
This year the Rebels are intent on being the team making the big plays.
"Last year I knew we had a chance to be pretty good, although if someone had said we'd go to the third round and have a chance at the end again, I'd have said you were crazy with the lack of experience we had coming back," Sawyer said.
Having starting quarterback Raleigh Yeldell back with a full season of experience under his belt as just a junior certainly helps matters. Sawyer said Yeldell has emerged in the preseason as a more mature and confident quarterback.
"I can see a huge maturing of him from last year to this year," said Sawyer. "Hopefully, you'll see a mind-boggling difference. He's just more confident, period, and he should be. He hasn't gotten a lot bigger, but he's stronger and faster."
A trio of backs in senior Chris Blocker, junior Malcolm Watkins and sophomore Darius Hammond anchor the offensive backfield.
The Rebels will be looking for a consistent performer at wideout from a talented group of receivers which includes Antonio Hamilton, the younger brother of former Strom Thurmond standout and current Georgia Bulldog Jakar Hamilton, and Wardlaw Academy transfer Jordan Faust.
Defensively, the Rebels received a serious blow when starting middle linebacker Tony Stepney went down over the summer with an ACL injury that will sideline him for the season. But plenty of talent returns, starting up front with stalwart defender Octavius Brown. The team also returns its leading tackler in strong side linebacker Nick Clark.
"We just have to find someone else there at that next level who can make some plays," said Sawyer. "It can't be Nick (just a junior) by himself. But he made All-Region and it is good to have him back there. (Brown) gets after it and we're going to have to move him around a little bit to keep people from doubling him as much."
Marquise Lomax and sophomore Hykeem Brooks -- who started all 13 games a year ago as a freshman at cornerback -- return to lead the secondary.
All-State punter Cullen Rhoden returns, while Trent Miller will take over place-kicking duties.