AIKEN - To understand how talented Aiken's senior class is, one need only browse through the Hornets roster and pick out the younger players.
Carey Johnson and his Hornets coaching staff never have been shy about throwing youth in with experience.
So it's no shocker to see that three of his team's top skill players aren't even part of the deep senior group that has lived out all expectations. Junior backs Aquinas Williams and Larry Anderson haven't had any trouble making their mark. Neither has sophomore linebacker Kenyatta Smith.
All three will be heavily depended on when Aiken (13-1) faces Greenwood (13-1) for the second straight season in the Class AAAA Division II state championship game at 8 p.m. Friday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"They're a major part of this ballclub," said North-South All Star wide out/free safety Brian Staley. "And they know it. We need them to step up and make plays just like any of the seniors. And they've stepped up big time."
The two speedsters, Williams and Anderson, have picked off eight passes together this season to lead the team. Anderson leads the team with six interceptions, while Williams has two with six pass breakups.
Smith has been all over the secondary, recovering three fumbles while intercepting three passes.
Their consistently sticky coverage has allowed Staley to roam at the free safety position, where he has five interceptions and seven pass breakups. It also has freed senior Larres Curry, last season's starting corner, to play linebacker, where he has four interceptions.
Williams' two picks came last week in the Hornets' 28-7 semifinal win over Marlboro County. Aiken's talented secondary even held highly touted receiver Tymere Zimmerman in check, limiting him to just three catches for 23 yards. The Division I prospect went into the game with more than 1,100 yards receiving this season and more than 2,800 for his career.
"They've got a lot of speed, even more this time around," Greenwood coach Shel Dula said of the Hornets. "They're a year older and a year better. Their secondary is definitely stronger this season. We've got to be ready for a battle."
Johnson is hoping his talented secondary can fare better against the Eagles this time around. The young Hornets managed little success in containing South Carolina's Mr. Football, quarterback Mark Logan, and his two all-state receivers, Mario Brown and David Jeffrey, last season.
Logan threw for 189 yards in the 35-0 victory, while Jeffrey reeled in six passes for 111 yards and a 42-yard touchdown reception. After the explosive three took their games to the collegiate level, Dula was concerned with finding adequate replacements.
"My biggest worries coming into the season was finding who we could get to take over for those three," Dula said. "They were our offense. But I have to say that I'm pleased with the way our new three have stepped up. They've stepped right in and produced."
Greenwood dipped into the defense and took three of its secondary starters and relocated them to offense. Junior quarterback Sam Williams (6-2, 180) has thrown for more than 1,700 yards this season after playing free safety a year ago. His main target is junior Devon Hill (6-3, 200), who has 51 catches for 861 yards and 14 touchdowns. Hill started at defensive back last year and returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown in the state title game. Senior Cliff Crawford (5-10, 180) has earned 31 receptions for 619 yards with seven touchdowns and still starts at defensive back.
Reserved parking for Aiken High football supporters will be available Friday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. The school's All-Sports Booster Club has leased the University House facility at the corner of Bluff Road and George Rogers Boulevard. Gates will open at 5 p.m., with spaces available on a first-come, first-serve basis. The parking facility can accommodate 160 vehicles.
Reach Patrick Green at (803) 648-1395.