By the time most high school football players get to their senior season, they’re prepared for the challenges they’ll face. They’ve been through ups and downs and have learned through experience.

That wasn’t the case for Dramel Coleman.

The Aiken High senior recently played his first – and only – season for the varsity team without the benefit of past experience. Coleman hadn’t played organized football since he was a freshman, starring for the Hornets’ junior varsity squad.

Two years away from the game didn’t prevent Coleman from having a standout season. He did a little of everything for a Hornet squad in transition under first-year head coach Brian Neal. While he was a major contributor on offense and special teams, it was Coleman’s performance on defense that was most impressive. The safety led the team in tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles and passes broken up among other statistics. But his intangibles and ability to make big plays were the decisive factors in Coleman being named the 2013 Aiken Standard Defensive Player of the Year.

“Dramel was a big bonus for us,” Neal said of Coleman, who recorded 56 tackles, five interceptions – including three returned for touchdowns – four passes broken up, three forced fumbles and two tackles for loss this season. “When I got here, people told me I had to get him to come out.”

Soon after he was first hired, Neal said his primary mission was trying to increase the size of his roster and add more players to all levels of the football program. He was looking far and wide for anybody who could help the team and drive up interest. He wasn’t limiting his search to football players, and was open to students with athletic ability.

Tony Harrell was one of the people Neal touched base with while trying to add players and leave no stone unturned. The head coach of Aiken’s varsity basketball team had also worked with the football program for a number of years, serving as the head coach of the JV team. When asked for recommendations, one name quickly came to Harrell’s mind.

“He was the first one I highly recommended,” Harrell said of Coleman, who he estimated had eight or nine touchdowns on the JV team when he played as a freshman and approximately as many sacks. “I knew he was a tremendous athlete. When he played as a ninth-grader I thought he was going to be outstanding.”

Neal said his pitch to Coleman was simple – he stated the obvious, that he needed players. Neal said he was able to pique Coleman’s curiosity and that was ultimately the deciding factor.

“He talked to me and told me I could do a lot for the football team, instead of sitting on the sideline watching,” recalled Coleman, an emerging star on the basketball team whose intrigue helped overcome his fear of being hurt. “I was scared to get an injury. I rolled both my ankles my freshman year and it hurt real bad. I was a little nervous, but after the first game, I got in my rhythm.”

Harrell didn’t want to see Coleman get hurt, but thought it was more important for him to play football.

“I was all for him playing. I wanted him to play because I never like to see a kid settle for one thing. I want them to do all they can do,” said Harrell, who admitted to some trepidation about his top returning player getting banged up on the gridiron. “I would cringe every time he got tackled, but he’s a tough kid.”

Coleman avoided major injuries and fought through nagging ailments. Once he was in his groove, Coleman was a sight to behold. At 6-foot-1 and approximately 200 pounds of muscle, he certainly stood out in the secondary. He’s exceptionally quick and used his size to lay big hits on opponents.

“He’s a big, physical guy. He’s not overly tall but runs real well. He was rarely caught out of position. He’s a big, strong athlete,” said Neal, who established a reputation as a top defensive mind during previous stints at McCormick and Ninety Six. “He’s one of the best safeties I’ve ever had. He’s got size, speed and knowledge of the game. He can make plays in the passing game and runs real well to the line of scrimmage. It’s hard to have a safety do both.”

Neal said he recognized Coleman’s skills immediately. Putting him in the right position was just a matter of tinkering. Because of his build, the Hornets originally had Coleman playing linebacker. After some trial and error, Neal and his staff made the shrewd decision to switch him to safety.

“Playing safety and moving from linebacker was a big help. I could get more done and see the field,” Coleman said. “I could make an open-field tackle or pick the ball. … I’d wait until the quarterback turned his shoulder and then I’d break on the ball.”

The only thing Coleman failed to do was help Aiken win more games. But that wasn’t because of any failing on his part. Coleman contributed with his play – including eight rushing touchdowns, 508 yards on the ground and a 43-yard average on kickoff returns.

“He had a nose for the football,” Neal said. “He knew where he was supposed to be and why he was supposed to be there. He was like a quarterback on defense. … He had a knack for making plays, knowing where the ball was and making plays to turn things around.”

Coleman also helped his teammates. He would read plays and get them lined up in the proper coverages. He was also an inspirational figure.

“What I didn’t know was how good of a leader he was. People followed him,” Neal said of Coleman, who took the losses hard, but was always the first person ready to turn the page and prepare for the next game. “Come Monday, he was ready to practice and lead those guys.”

Harrell echoed those sentiments from his own experience.

“He’s a fine young man. He practices and plays extremely hard and always gives great effort. He’s got great leadership qualities and the other kids look up to him. When your leader goes 100 percent every play, the other kids have to,” Harrell said, also crediting Coleman’s accountability. “He takes ownership when he doesn’t do his best.”

Coleman said its important for him to have a positive attitude. He listed that among his priorities, along with being in school, a good environment and staying out of trouble. While his grades aren’t as good as they could be, he’s looking forward to the chance to go to college. He’ll likely have to go the junior college route, but Neal said some big programs have expressed interest in adding Coleman when he’s academically eligible.

“He’s definitely a college football player,” Neal said of Coleman, who could go to as a walk on South Carolina State or try Georgia Military College. “How much he develops the next couple of years will determine how far he’ll go.”

Coleman isn’t in a rush to make a decision. He’s going to wait until after the basketball season to see what kind of interest he garners for his performance on the hardwood. He said he loves basketball and football equally and is grateful for the opportunities both sports have created for him to pursue.

It opened up college options,” Coleman said, adding that returning to the gridiron was a positive experience. “I had fun, I’m glad I got back out there.”

Neal seconded that sentiment. He said Coleman has helped the Hornet program by opening the eyes of more students who could try their hand at playing football in the future because of Coleman’s success.

“He’s a tremendous asset. I don’t know if we would’ve won a game without him,” Neal said. “I’m glad he decided to play.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


Wednesday: All-Aiken Standard Team

Thursday: Aiken Standard Offensive Player of the Year

Today: Aiken Standard Defensive Player of the Year

Saturday: Aiken Standard Coach of the Year