Setting the sights


2013 D.W. Daniel Lions

2013 D.W. Daniel Lions

As usual, State Championship the goal for Robinson’s Lions

By Rocky Nimmons, Courier Sports

CENTRAL — At D.W. Daniel High School, winning football championships is expected. It is expected by the coaches, players and especially fans.

Every player that straps on the golden helmet has known that since the first time he dreamed of wearing the Columbia blue and gold.

Last year, the Lions won the Western AAA, stormed through the playoffs and hosted the Upper State Championship on Singleton Field. But, for the third time in five years, the mighty Lions came up short in their quest for another AAA State Championship.

Where other programs would be happy with such a consistency of traveling deep into the playoffs, it’s not so at Daniel, where more is always better.

With a senior-laden team with most having three years of starting experience under their belts, 2013 could be the year.

“Former Daniel head coach Allen Sitterle told me something back in the mid-1990s, and I have never forgotten it,” Daniel coach Randy Robinson said in a recent interview with the Courier.

“He said, ‘When you make those deep runs into the playoffs, these other teams are collecting equipment, and our kids are practicing.’ It’s almost like free practices, and you are preparing depth for the future,” Robinson said.

The future is now for the Lions, who sport 20 seniors on this year’s roster. Back are almost the entire starting defense, Andy McCall under center, star running back Jae’lon Oglesby — a Clemson commitment — and all the important pieces on the special teams unit.

“We have had a lot of success because of those deep runs,” Robinson said. “It gives those younger kids those reps. They contribute as scout-team guys and they get to be a part of those big games and they understand what it takes to be successful. So (Sitterle) taught me a little something about how those big runs will pay off in the future. We hope to take that next step this year.

“Daniel has always been a quality program. It was here with coach Dick Singleton and it was here with coach Allen Sitterle, and I am just trying to keep it rolling. The expectations are here, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We want to be that team that goes deep into the playoffs every year and has a chance to win it all, and I think our community feels the same way. If the kids grow up in Six Mile, Central and Clemson, they know the expectations when they get to Daniel, and I think that actually helps us.”

But with such success comes the proverbial target on the Lions’ collective back.

“We are real used to having a bullseye on our backs,” Robinson said. “It has always been that way and the way it has been since I have been here.”

Daniel has more than 70 players on the practice field every day, and the Lions have worked hard in the offseason, according to Robinson.

“With summer workouts each year we continue to raise the bar with our expectations and the players continue to respond,” he said. “We have a lot of three-year starters. 20 seniors for us is a good number, but at the same time, we have to have some guys behind them helping out. We are hoping that our junior and sophomore classes can certainly fill in the holes.”

Robinson said it is kind of unusual not to have some new faces.

“Our area is transient, but this year it is just the guys that played last year and the good group of JVs coming up,” he said.

In addition to the legs of Oglesby, the strength of this year’s team looks to be a hard-nosed defense.

“Defensively we expect to be pretty good,” Robinson said. “When you have this many guys back that have played as many snaps as these have, you expect that, particularly on run defense. We only lost one of our front seven so we have all those returners, and most are three-year starters. Up front we should be real strong. At corner, we have a couple of people competing, but we have Daulton Pilgrim coming back at the other safety and Amir Trapp at the corner.”

Up front, the Lions return Lee Eddleman, Joel Starks and Tyrell Fleming. Inside linebackers Michael Peppers and Neil Monaghan, both third-year starters, are back, as is outside linebacker Solomon Brown. J.D. Davis should fill the other outside linebacker spot.

“We have all our linemen back and both our inside linebackers,” Robinson said. “If we don’t stop the run on defense, something is wrong. I think Michael Peppers is the emotional leader up front. Monaghan is the pre-snap guy that sees everything and makes the adjustments. He is a tremendous academic student. He usually sees what is going to happen before it does. To have that much experience back there is going to make a huge difference.”

On offense, the first thing opposing units will have to account for is Oglesby. The rusher piled up 2,472 yards last season and has already taken the stress of recruiting out of his equation, picking Clemson early.

“Daniel has been unique in that we had some guys get some scholarships and go on to college and play ball, and our guys usual commit quick,” Robinson said. “I really don’t like the game of recruiting. It is just something you have to deal with when people try to get leverage on a kid and try to persuade kids and all the other stuff that goes on out there. We are fortunate that when our kids get an offer they like, they commit quick. They get it out of the way so it doesn’t affect our team.”

Oglesby rushed for 33 touchdowns on 293 carries a year ago.

“Jae’lon went for almost 2,500 yards, and he can go out there and catch the football with the best of them,” Robinson said. “We feel like we can put him back there and give him 20 touches a game. He is a special player. He is as athletic a guy as we have ever had at Daniel.”

Oglesby will be working with a less-than-established offensive front, as the Lions’ only question mark would be the front five. But Robinson thinks the unit will be just fine, with many of the prospective positions being manned by upcoming players that helped lead the Daniel junior varsity squad to a 10-0 record last season. In addition to seniors Richard Johnson and Michael Bullock, players that look to be filling those holes include Cade Stewart and Devin Woodson.

“Our JVs went 10-0 last year, so it is not like those guys didn’t play good football on the line,” Robinson said. “They will be first-year starters, and we have four or five kids to pick from for those spots and we will see what happens. We can also move some defensive guys in there, just in case they have to do it. It will be a place early on I will be watching to see who steps up.”

Under center for his second season as a starter will be McCall, who guided the Lions’ attack last season, although he will be without the services of a pair of All-Region targets in departed seniors Tyus Gaines and Adrien Dunn. McCall has benefitted from a strong work ethic, however.

“Andy McCall has worked so hard in the offseason, and he throws the ball so much better and he understands the offense,” Robinson said. “It will be the first year since 2009 that I will have a guy that is watching what I am watching on the field. He sees the read before it happens. That is going to help us with play-calling to have a quarterback with some experience.”

Another player that looks to make an impact in the backfield is junior Austin Barnes, who Robinson said could be a major factor in the backfield alongside Oglesby and fellow senior Jared Dillingham.

On special teams the Lions are blessed with the return of their kickers, punter and snapper. Set to punt will be Andy Fowler, while Christian Groomes and Rivers Sherrill will share kicking duties. Dylan Pilgrim will again hold honors as the team’s long snapper.

Maybe the biggest change that will help the Lions this season is a great schedule that will only see Robinson’s troops hitting the road three times. Daniel will only travel to Walhalla, West-Oak and Belton-Honea Path.

“Walhalla and West-Oak are pretty close and BHP is the only long run,” Robinson said. “The schedule is finally working into our favor. Every year since 2010, it has not been kind to Daniel, so it will be nice to have so many home games.”

“The BHP trip will be big, because for the last 17 years it has been Daniel or BHP that has won the region,” Robinson said. “Until someone proves us different it will decide it again this year. Our kids see that. They understand it. We are always flat the week after the BHP game. It depends on who you are playing, and that can bite you. Last year I preached so hard because we had that long ride to Emerald and we gave up 34 points. For us that is unheard of.

“The fans will have no excuse. We have all these home games and we have a lot of seniors. I had someone ask, ‘Since you are not traveling, will that bother you in the playoffs?’ But you know, this is a senior-laden team and they have traveled before and played big games on the road, so I don’t see that as problem for us. I don’t think our fans know about the changes in our new stadium. Because it is more in a hole, when our fans get excited and it gets loud, we have a tremendous homefield advantage. We encourage all our fans to come out.”

Robinson said he also wanted to think his staff and personnel for all the hard work over the last few years with all the construction at the new high school.

“We tell our kids to not make excuses, so we had to bite our tongues a lot, but we had a lot of things that went wrong from the start of the construction in 2009 to where we are today,” he said. “Finally we have a semblance of normalcy and we had a weight room in the offseason and over the summer and fields with no distractions. So a lot of good things happened in the offseason. You can see the results with the weight gain and the muscle gain.”

Robinson also took the opportunity to thank some special people that help the Daniel program year after year.

“That is what people don’t see — the behind the scenes guys like Don Allsep, who got the church to pick up the slack and help us with breakfast and pre-game meals,” Robinson said. “And you can talk about Andy ‘Hop’ Holder, who when something is broken, you turn around and suddenly it is fixed. They never want any credit or anything for their troubles. Delas Boren, who takes care of kickers for us, and Larry Jenkins has just been a blessing. Larry is just going to put his arm around a kid when he needs to talk to somebody and challenge a kid when he needs to be challenged. The Daniel community is going to support these kids.”