2013 in Review

In what became Lee Sawyer’s last season as head coach, Strom Thurmond rode the efforts of seniors like Jauveer Hammond and Kenyatta Dunbar to its usual level of success in 2013.


The Rebels’ 11-2 season came to an end in the third round of the Class AAA playoffs against Myrtle Beach, with the team’s losses coming by a combined 12 points to the Seahawks and Class AAAA, Division II semifinalist North Augusta.


First-year head coach Antwuan Hillary, formerly the team’s offensive coordinator, said he was the “proudest” of the 2013 team as any he’s coached in his time in Johnston. After the 2012 campaign, the Rebels lost 15 starters but still won the Region 5-AAA title.


“Last year, for what we lost, that was totally unexpected,” Hillary said. “We were able to just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”


Hammond, the team’s quarterback, was as good as could be expected during his senior year, passing for 1,745 yards and 14 touchdowns and running for 1,356 yards and 11 more scores. Dunbar led the defense with 87½ tackles at linebacker and was tied for the team lead with three interceptions, as the duo earned All-Aiken Standard first-team honors and were selected for spots in the North-South All-Star Game and the first edition of the Border Bowl.


Both signed to play college football this spring, and Sawyer retired after 10 years, giving way to Hillary to take the reins.


Returning Stars

While the Rebels lost Hammond, Dunbar and others, the returning talent pool is somewhat deeper than a year ago.


On the offensive side of the ball, no star shines brighter, perhaps, than junior running back Chad Gilchrist. As a sophomore, Gilchrist had 145 carries for more than 1,100 yards with 11 touchdowns, and his running style is a major factor in the “physicality” of the Strom Thurmond offense.


At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Gilchrist rarely gets stopped for a loss and helps keep the chains moving forward.


“One thing about Chad, whenever he gets the ball, he’s falling forward,” Hillary said.


On defense, Chad Stevens was the team’s leader in sacks last year with five. Returning at nose guard, the 6-foot-2, 293-pound lineman will draw his share of attention and then some.


“Just him being so big in the middle, he requires more than one blocker,” Hillary said.


While he didn’t have as big of a season a year ago, cornerback Israel Talbert was a statistical force as a sophomore, when he hauled in five interceptions. With more experience elsewhere in the defensive backfield this year, Talbert could return to the spotlight as teams may throw his way more.


New Faces

Quarterback Tyree Stidem is far from unknown, but he’ll be in a new role this year after serving as the team’s third-leading receiver with 26 catches for 365 yards and three touchdowns as a junior. Even if he hasn’t started behind center before, his starting experience as a wideout coupled with two years as Hammond’s backup make him a driving force already for the Rebels.


“Just from a leader standpoint, I think it’s important,” Hillary said. “He’s been real vocal.”


He’ll have a new player filling the void at No. 1 receiver, as senior Jequez Harris will move into the role vacated by Kendall Hill. Harris saw limited playing time a year ago, hauling in a 20-yard touchdown pass in a playoff win over North Myrtle Beach and catching four passes against Myrtle Beach, but Hillary said that the rangy receiver has been putting in the work.


“That’ll be a big change for him, but he’s had a tremendous summer,” Hillary said.


Games to watch

Due to its status among the area’s best programs, all of Strom Thurmond’s games become one to watch for the other team, especially for area teams.


This year, the Rebels – beginning play in Class AA after two years in Class AAA – open a slate of five non-region games against local programs with a road trip to play Aiken. Hillary said that he’s impressed with what Hornet head coach Brian Neal has done and said the season opener will provide a needed challenge.


“Just playing a bigger school and a team with a tradition like Aiken ... is going to prepare us for the long haul,” Hillary said.


From there, Strom Thurmond will play Silver Bluff, Midland Valley, South Aiken and North Augusta before beginning Region 2-AA play. Traditional rivals Batesburg-Leesville – the defending Class AA, Division II champion – and Saluda await in that second portion of the schedule, but Hillary said his team will approach each foe the same way.


“What I tell my guys is we try to take it one week at a time,” he said. “We give our opponent the most respect always.”


Offense

Stidem will be running the same read-option offense that the Rebels have implemented in the past, joined in the backfield by one or two running backs.


Along with Gilchrist, senior Deion Chinn will line up next to Stidem at times, and he’ll hit defenses with more of the same heavy running style.


“He’s going to be able to help us tremendously,” Hillary said. “He’s kind of a bigger back, kind of like Chad.”


The team’s top returning receiver based on last year’s production, junior Deandre Ryan was second on the team with 32 catches for 364 receiving yards and four touchdowns. While he isn’t sliding up to the No. 1 receiving role, his experience as a starter makes him the de facto captain of the wideouts.


“We’re counting on him to do big things and kind of lead that receivers group,” Hillary said.


After replacing their entire offensive line a year ago, the Rebels have some stability up front coming into this season. Jackson Ammons, Corley Christie, Keveon Broadwater and Cambrine Mathis all got starts last season, which should help Stidem adjust to his new workload.


“We’ve got to find a couple more, but I know we’ll find a couple more,” Hillary said of his line.


Defense

The Rebels have experience returning all over the field on the defensive side of the ball, where Hillary said his squad will still operate out of the 3-5 base package.


Joining Stevens up front are Rashad Lott – who had 2½ sacks last season – and Jonte Nathaniel. And Nathaniel has impressed his head coach this summer.


“He’s really stepped up on defense,” Hillary said of the senior’s summer work.


Behind that front line, linebackers Montrez Coleman, Chandler Talbert and Tay Merriweather are all back. Coleman was third on the team in tackles with 51 in 2013, and Merriweather had three interceptions while Talbert was an impact player all season.


Tanner Byrd, who started some a year ago but missed time due to injury, will move from safety to outside linebacker.


Replacing him at safety will be Malik Nicholson, a junior, with safety Kyle Hill moving from safety to a cornerback spot across from Israel Talbert. The experience throughout the back side of the defense will serve the Rebels well against the better passing offenses they’ll see, especially in the playoffs, Hillary said.


“If you play as long as we want to play, you’re going to have to be able to defend the pass,” he said.


Special Teams

Cole Fell, who had a punting average of 31 yards while connecting on 48 of 54 extra points and six of 10 field goals with a long of 39 yards, is back to fill the kicking roles for the Rebels.


Hillary said that Fell has gotten stronger on his kickoffs and was a “weapon” when field goals were needed a year ago.


“Just the experience, him making big kicks last year,” Hillary said. “It almost was automatic.”


Ryan will again handle the return duties.


Overall Outlook

Hillary said that he and the Rebel coaches break the season down into two parts: non-region and region.


They aim to play a tough non-region schedule, which prepares them for the second half. Beyond that, the Rebels always have the same goals: To win whatever region they’re in and battle for a state championship.


“One of our goals is to win our region, obviously, and then make the playoffs and try to take it one week at a time,” he said. “And hopefully, get a chance to play for a state championship.”?


Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.


2013 RESULTS


vs. Silver Bluff 31-15 Win


at Saluda 28-17 Win


vs. Batesburg-Leesville 35-28 Win


at South Aiken 21-7


at North Augusta 27-20 Loss


vs. Brookland-Cayce 42-13 Win


at Airport 39-7 Win


vs. Swansea 44-21 Win


vs. Gilbert 42-23 Win


Midland Valley 34-27 Win


vs. Darlington* 35-6 Win


vs. North Myrtle Beach* 27-17 Win


at Myrtle Beach* 21-16 Loss


*Class AAA playoff game


2014 SCHEDULE


All games at 7:30 p.m.


Aug. 22 at Aiken


Aug. 29 BYE


Sept. 5 at Silver Bluff


Sept. 12 vs. Midland Valley


Sept. 19 at South Aiken


Sept. 26 vs. North Augusta


Oct. 3 at Abbeville


Oct. 10 vs. Crescent


Oct. 17 at Saluda


Oct. 24 vs. Batesburg-Leesville


Oct. 31 vs. Ninety Six