Friday’s MAIS Class 3A championship between No. 1 Carroll Academy (12-0) and No. 2 Greenville Christian School (10-1) features highly-recruited skill players all over the field, but don’t be surprised if the title is decided down in the trenches.
Perhaps the most important question is how much time Saints star quarterback DeAndre “D.J.” Smith will have to throw against a dangerous Rebels pass rush led by stud senior linemen Cooper Beck and Hunter Brower. In last week’s 15-6 semifinal victory over St. Joe, Carroll’s pressure proved effective against Fighting Irish quarterback Mekhi Norris.
“I thought they did a good job containing Mekhi,” Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McLendon said. “They didn’t let him get loose and do a ton of damage. I thought they were more physical than St. Joe, that was the big difference. That’s a place we know we have to match their intensity, match their physicality up front.”
Smith might be more mobile than Norris, but the junior standout can’t escape everything. In Greenville Christian’s first playoff matchup, Indianola Academy’s pass rush kept the game tied at 6-6 until the fourth quarter, when Smith ran for one score and threw for another to help the Saints pull away.
Last week’s semifinal was a different story as Smith enjoyed a clean pocket and Greenville Christian blew out Winona Christian, 50-7.
“If D.J. has time, he’ll pick defenses apart,” McLendon said. “He’s just too good at this level. If we can get him time, he throws the ball where he wants to.”
McLendon has handed the keys of his offense to Smith, a cerebral signal caller who has the ability to read the defense and keep the ball on any running play. Last week, the run-pass option worked to perfection on a 92-yard rushing touchdown early against Winona Christian.
“It was an inside zone play and he saw a seam, pulled it out and took it the distance," McLendon said. "I thought he was going to pull a Daniel Jones. Probably the fastest I’ve ever seen him move. He had a couple steps where I thought he was going to lose it, but he caught his balance and ended up outrunning the defense.
“It was pretty impressive, as good a passer as he is, he’s shown the ability to be plenty athletic and hurt people with his legs.”
Beck, Brower and the rest of the Rebels’ front seven figure to be the toughest defensive challenge yet for the Saints’ offensive line. On the left side, Wendell Poindexter and Cordaryl Grant have been solid all season protecting Smith’s blind side. McLendon said he’s also relying on 6-foot-4, 320-pound Greenwood High transfer Terrion Ross to step up at right tackle.
“We look for Big T, he’s our most physically imposing up front,” McLendon said. “He’s been really good for us run blocking over at right tackle. We need him to do a good job in pass protection Friday for us to have the success we’ve had.”
If Greenville Christian’s offensive line can hold strong, it’s difficult to imagine Smith not doing damage with his weapons out wide. The Saints possess plenty of speed at receiver between Kerrick Ross, Davaris Pilcher and Daylin Metcalf, who totaled nine touchdowns in just five regular season games this year.
Although they’ll likely spread the ball around and attack Carroll through the air, they can also pound the ball on the ground with their team captain, 210-pound running back Marlon Palmer.
Greenville Christian may have better athletes on paper. But McLendon knows his Saints are facing a gritty Rebels squad that refuses to back down from anyone.
“They’re physical — they get after it for four quarters,” the seventh-year head coach said. “Like I was telling (Carroll head coach Bo Milton), it’s not a game you look forward to because they’re going to try to beat you up. That’s the way they like to play.”
“Carroll is undefeated, they’ve been pretty much consensus No. 1 in most rankings that you see all year,” McLendon added. “We still have some things left to prove. I think they’re going to be the best team we’ve seen and I’m excited for the challenge.”
• Contact Riley Overend at 581-7237 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @OverendOut on Twitter.