JOHNSTON, S.C. — Strom Thurmond made a name for itself on the football field last season as a high-scoring team that entertained fans with blowout wins and an undefeated regular season.
If the winning tradition is to continue, it might have to be the defense that takes over.
“That’s an area where we’ve got several back, so we’ve got some experience there,” head coach Lee Sawyer said. “We’ve been hobbled up a little bit on defense in the preseason but hopefully everybody will be close to full speed by Friday.”
The pressure on the defense comes from turnover on the other side of the ball. The Rebels lost starting quarterback Raleigh Yeldell to graduation and will have a new signal caller for the first time in three years. A lack of depth at wide receiver and the uncertainty of tailback Darius Hammond, who missed much of last year with a broken ankle, leave plenty of question marks.
But the defense, with at least seven starters back, has spent the preseason preparing to lead the way until the younger offensive unit can get its feet wet.
“I’m positive the defense is even stronger than last year,” linebacker Aaron Cook said. “We mostly have seniors on the defense, but I believe everybody on there can make plays and get the job done.”
One of the key starters on defense, junior cornerback Jauveer Hammond, was moved to quarterback over the off-season. But Sawyer said sophomore quarterback Tyree Stidem has also shown promise and, with enough experience early in the season, could take over the position and allow Hammond to stay in the secondary and strengthen the defense.
Stidem, Darius Hammond and the rest of the backfield will have proper protection from three returning starters. Salathian Simpkins, Jake Goforth and Montel Webb are all senior linemen with plenty of experience.
The Rebels program annually faces extremely high expectations and lofty goals, but the depth in the trenches, potential in the backfield and experience on defense have Sawyer confident that the team has the ability to continue the tradition.
“I think it’s achievable,” he said. “I want (expectations)
to be high. I expect them to be high. I think myself, our players and our coaches all expect big things. Our community does. You don’t want to be somewhere where it’s not important.”
The Rebels will face a strong early test when they open the season Friday at home against a private school out of Maryland. The Week 0 matchup will see the Strom Thurmond defense face an Eastern Christian Academy team with a quarterback, David Sills, who verbally committed Southern Cal as a seventh grader and threw for more than 2,300 yards last year.
At least seven other players on the Eastern Christian Academy roster have reportedly earned NCAA Division I offers.
Sawyer said scheduling challenging opponents early wasn’t an accident.
“It is by design,” he said. “I just feel like you can’t control what region you’re put in. But what you can control is who you play nonregion. I just think you need to play the best people you can play. You’re going to play in a playoff type atmosphere if it’s the right schedule week after week so you’re used to that. And if you play the right people it’s going to expose your weaknesses and you can work on that.”
Strom Thurmond will compete as a Class AAA school for the first time in five years. The Rebels previously played in Class AA but were elevated in the most recent region realignment and will join Midland Valley in Region 5-AAA for at least the next two seasons.