Taking over a high school football team that has gone undefeated and won a state championship three of the past four seasons is a daunting task. Add in a backfield that boasts a first-year starter at quarterback, a sophomore at tailback and a fullback that’s converting from the center position, and that mantle gets even heavier.
Yet that is the situation first-year head coach Mark Rodgers inherited, and his team has rolled to a 5-0 record to start the season.
Rodgers said that the surprise was not in the hot start but in the youth and inexperience of the players leading the way.
“It hasn’t caught us by surprise because we have some talent,” he said. “What caught us off guard was how many young guys we had stepping up.”
One young player that hasn’t shocked anyone with his early-season production is Malik Lee. A big part of the Patriots’ rushing attack last season alongside the now graduated duo of Bailey Pendarvis and Jordan Faust, Lee has Flourished as the feature back this year, netting a Player of the Week honor from the South Carolina Independent Schools Association on Aug. 30 for a 300-yard, five-touchdown performance against Charleston Collegiate.
Through five games, the sophomore has more than 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns, prompting some high praise from Rodgers.
“He is actually one of the most balanced I’ve seen in a while,” Rodgers said. “He takes one and a half steps for 5 yards.”
That lengthy stride helps Lee run for speed and power, and it aids in his ability to make people miss with moves inside.
Also producing in an offense that is averaging almost 45 points a game are the quarterbacks. Rodgers said the team has used a tandem of signal callers in junior Holton Manly and freshman Ed Williams. He estimated that Manly, who waited his turn behind Pendarvis, has run for 200 yards and three scores while Williams has rushed for about 180 yards.
Throw in the “razzle-dazzle” that Rodgers said newcomer Ryshard Coates has brought, good for 290 yards on about 20 carries, and the Patriots have established themselves as a running power with Daylen Morris and converted center Kerry Cockrell at fullback.
The coach also said his offensive line, anchored by Jacob Baynham and 6-foot-3, 265-pound frehsman Bennett Rhoads, is becoming a strength for his team.
“Our offensive line is starting to gel,” Rodgers said. “We’re not where we need to be, by any means, but we’re getting there.”
The Wardlaw defense has also held its own, giving up only 15 points per game to this point. Rodgers points to assistant coach Tim Williams as the man behind the defensive unit’s success, saying that Williams has his team playing aggressively on that side of the ball.
“One of the things, our kids will hit,” he said, adding that linebackers Morris and Cockrell are at the center of that effort.
That aggressive nature has carried back into the secondary and pass defense, with defensive back Ernest Woodward leading the way with four interceptions. Morris has three picks, Manly has chipped in two and Rodgers highlighted his team’s ability to go get the football on defense as one of its strong points.
“Our defense has made people turn the ball over,” Rodgers said.
Formerly the coach of SCHSL Class A competitor Ridge Spring-Monetta, Rodgers said that one significant difference between 11-man and eight-man football is the necessity of fundamentals on defense. While 11-man defenses can rely on stunts in pass rush, their eight-man counterparts have to play with greater commitment to discipline.
“You’ve got to be fundamentally sound because you can’t do a whole lot of blitzing because you open the Red Sea if you do,” he said.
The Patriots will next be in action Friday at home against Cathedral Academy out of North Charleston. The Generals are 5-1 on the season, with the teams having a common opponent in Charleston Collegiate. Wardlaw beat the Sun Devils 66-24, while Cathedral got a 66-40 win.
The Generals’ lone loss of the season was by a score of 54-8 to St. John’s Christian Academy.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.