Lions look to roar – After disappointing finish, DWD hopes to come back strong

2015 D.W. Daniel Lions

By Rocky Nimmons

CENTRAL — Sometimes it’s the little things that change the season for a football program.

08-19 Page 1B.inddLast year, the Daniel Lions were rolling along, looking to be in position for another long run in the playoffs.

Five weeks into the season, the Lions looked unstoppable, but the proof was in the pudding as the upcoming five weeks featured the meat of their region schedule. Games against undefeated Wren, Belton-Honea Path and rival Seneca were all ahead.

The Lions were rolling along as usual until a single bad call derailed the Lions’ hopes of a region title and home-field advantage in the playoffs. The game of the year was the battle with the Wren Golden Hurricanes, with the winner poised to take the region title.

With Daniel ahead 42-41, Wren quarterback Kelly Bryant — now a Clemson Tiger — drove the Hurricanes down to the Lions’ 24-yard line with 11 seconds to play. After taking the snap, Bryant looked to be poised to spike the ball and stop the clock, but instead his guard took a step back and dislodged the ball from his hand. Bryant swatted the ball to the ground, where Daniel defensive lineman T.J. Reese took it on its first bounce and raced toward the Wren end zone. The visiting crowd was going wild until the officiating crew gathered at midfield and called the fumble a spike, giving the Hurricanes one last play. Bryant then took the gift and capitalized, finding Bailey Rogers open from 24 yards out for the winning touchdown with 0.9 seconds to play.

In the following weeks, the Lions snapped back and beat Belton-Honea Path, Pickens and Walhalla, but the damage was done. The loss to Wren dropped the Lions from first place in the region to fourth and forced Randy Robinson’s squad to travel to Columbia in week one of the playoffs, where their season ended wit a 37-14 loss to A.C. Flora.

“The positive thing is that one play at Wren could have destroyed the season, but it didn’t,” Robinson said. “We watch the video, and it was clear to see that one call costs us the game. That was the tough thing to overcome, but we beat BHP the next week. So seeing the kids overcome that was a positive. That team showed some character.

“One thing people don’t realize is by week 10, we would have been region champions if that call does not happen. And the Seneca game would have just been the Seneca game. It would not have had any value, and we would have been region champions. We went from first to fourth on that one call. That was why we were so far away for the first round of the playoffs.

Robinson said the Lions’ returning players are bothered by the deflating end to a once-promising season last year.

“We have already brought it up, and I think that has added some fuel in the offseason,” he said.

Robinson said he has a lot of anticipation going into the 2015 season, as the players have worked hard all summer to ready themselves for another run at the Western AAA crown. He said he has some really good young players moving up and he sees great potential in them from the weight room and from summer workouts and the 7-on-7 circuit.

“We have already gotten to know the kids, but until you put those pads, on you are still kind of curious to see how they are going to perform,” Robinson said.

The Lions will sport a roster featuring 23 seniors, and the group will have the fate of the team resting squarely on its collective shoulders.

“We expect leadership from this senior group. I have communicated that more in the offseason than I have with any group since I have been here,” he said. “We are trying to set the expectations.”

But the Lions look to have a bright future ahead, as the underclassmen will be pushing for playing time from the start of the season.

“The seniors are aware of it. These seniors know there is a sophomore class back there that is loaded with talent, where the kids just need a chance to play,” Robinson said. “So the competition is there. Some of our seniors are going to have to fight to hang onto a job.”

Robinson said the rising junior class reminds of the 1997 senior class.

“We went to Columbia with seven seniors,” he said. “Our juniors are a small group — there are only 10 of them. They are all good kids and they all work hard. It happens once in a while where you have a lull. I think part of it was the process. They kind of got caught in the move of the school. It may have affected that group.”

Robinson sees great promise in the sophomores and freshmen behind them.

“Like I tell these seniors, these kids are going to be pushing for playing time — they can take their jobs,” he said.

When the Lions take the field, it may be a little different than it has been in recent years. Robinson and company may see more balls in the air than ever before. The Lions will feature a strong-armed sophomore quarterback in Ben Batson and a bevy of talented receivers including seniors Carter Groomes, Dante Gilliard, Jacob Wichelns, C.J. Scott, Brandon Kwietniewski, Duncan Williamson and Jamarcus Black.

“We are going to match our offense to our skill position guys,” Robinson said. “This may be the best depth we have ever had at receiver. So we may throw the ball a bit more and line up in more spread formations so those kids can be on the field to make plays for us.”

Robinson is also very high on his quarterback.

“With Batson, you talk about a competitor, he came out there in that Wren game last year and in four plays he had us in the end zone,” Robinson said. “He pretty much proved to the Daniel faithful that this kid was serious about winning. He wants to be the quarterback, and he has had a great off season and worked hard in the weight room. He is one of those guys that don’t come around very often.”

The Lions will also have to somewhat rebuild the offensive line, with only Cade Stewart and Dylan Perry returning from last year’s starting unit.

“On the offensive line, Hunter Joplin is a great example of how Daniel kids are,” Robinson said. “He was a starter on the defensive line, but he is clearly the best center on the roster, so he has gone to offense to play center for us. He knew for us to be successful he needed to go to offense. So he and Dylan Perry and Cade Stewart will start and we’ll just have to find two guards, and we have four or five kids competing there.”

The final piece of the puzzle for the Lions will be to find a durable and sure-handed running back who can get the yards needed in the tough situations. Robinson said the running back spot is still up for grabs.

“You will see a bunch of people get a chance there,” Robinson said. “Somebody will win the job, because I do not have a starter.”

Looking to fill that roll will be seniors Stephon Kirksey and Jules Morgan. Sophomore Nick Taylor will also get a chance, along with Marnielius Cobb and others.

The team’s strength and what will help the Lions stabilize as the season starts will be a tough-as-nails defense that features six returning starters.

“I think defensively we have led early,” Robinson said. “We have all the defensive linemen back. Jacob Maloney is healthy in the secondary, and Malik Watt and C.J. Scott were good corners back there last year. We expect the defense to lead because we think the offense could make some mistakes with us playing a sophomore quarterback and running back.

“I felt like last year, Jordan Dunkley and Dylan Pilgrim held the defense together. We win with kids that love this Columbia blue. They are the epitome of what Daniel is all about. At most schools they were not fast enough or not big enough, but those jokers sure did lead our defense.”

Robinson said the Lions see similar love of the program and leadership from defensive players such as Chris Barnes, whose dad was a standout Daniel fullback by the same name in the 1990s, as well as T.J. and Jaelon Reese, whose dad, Gaston, starred for the Lions in the early 1990s.

Robinson said fans will grow accustomed to hearing Barnes’ and the Reese brothers’ names over the loud speakers this season.

“Cade Stewart and Dylan Perry will be our leaders on offense,” Robinson said. “They have worked hard and want their class to lead the way and have confidence.

“On defense, it will be T.J. Reese — he is a Daniel boy all the way. He will lead the defensive front, and Jacob Maloney will lead the secondary.”

The Lions will have both their kicker and punter back in Rivers Sherrill and Justin Craig, although both the long-snapper and holder are gone from last season. Look for Will Swinney to fill one of those roles, as he has shown great skill in both snapping and holding.

As the season gets underway, all the Lions’ opponents look to have improved their games. It will be as challenging a year as Daniel has faced in a long time.

“All I have heard is about Emerald’s speed on defense, and that one will be interesting,” Robinson said. “Westside won about every 7-on-7 tournament we went to, so they will be a AAAA contender for a state championship. Two of those games in the first three weeks will be as intense and physical as we will face. I think those type of games get you ready for the BHPs, Wrens and Senecas.”

The Lions have always approached the year as three seasons — the preseason, region season and the playoffs — and have traditionally scheduled strong opponents in the preseason.

“It is so important in developing your team. We have to develop the weakest link, because that is where the chain is going to break,” Robinson said. “The thing that will make the season one to remember is if we keep getting better every week. We will have at least four sophomores starting at linebacker. How quickly they develop will determine how the season goes. I have faced this in 2007 and 2011, and those kids responded and those were double-digit win seasons.

“We are probably in better shape right now than we have ever been in. We worked on speed training probably harder than we ever have. We still lifted in the weight room, but we could stand to eat a few more cheeseburgers. This is the skinniest Daniel team we have ever had. This is a team that is going to compete, and it is not going to matter how hot it is. These kids are going to be ready.

Robinson said this year will be an exciting one for the Columbia blue and gold.

“At the end of the day, Daniel football is special,” he said. “It always has been, and I think the fans will see an exciting team. Our offense will be a little more wide open than it has been in the past, and the defense will be just as tough as it has always been.”

The season starts on Aug. 28, when the Lions host the Easley Green Wave. Daniel will have one final tune-up this Friday when Singleton Field hosts the annual Daniel Day Jamboree at 7 p.m. After West-Oak takes on T.L. Hanna and Greenville battles Palmetto, the Lions will close the night with a clash against AAAA Laurens.