The big school defense for the inaugural Mainstreet Daily News/Prep Zone All Area Football Team has a distinctive Suwannee and Columbia feel to it. The two schools combined to snag eight of 11 spots on the team, thanks to long postseason runs on the strength of their defensive units.
Suwannee, which finished 2020 with an 8-3 record and advanced to the 5A region semifinals, lead the way with five selections.
Juniors Austin Smith and Antonio McKinney anchor the defensive line. Smith led the Bulldogs with 46 tackles, including nine tackles for loss and four sacks.
“Austin Smith is a tremendous athlete who plays with great instincts and aggressiveness,” Suwannee coach Kyler Hall says. “He is a force as a run stopper and has the length and quickness to get to the quarterback.”
McKinney finished the season with 40 tackles, including four tackles for loss, and four sacks.
“Antonio McKinney has the quickest first step I’ve seen in a long time,” Hall added. “He is an offensive tackle’s worst nightmare and has a chance to be one of the best in the area next year.”
Buchholz senior Matt Clayton and Columbia junior Bobby Miller join the two Suwannee players on the defensive line. Miller had 60 tackles, including 16 for loss, and 12 sacks for the Tigers, who finished with only a 5-6 record but won four postseason games and advanced to the 6A-Region 1 final.
Suwannee senior Blaine Howard and junior Andrew Brown lead the All Area linebacker corps and are joined by Columbia junior A’deon Farmer.
Howard led the Bulldogs with 74 tackles and added an interception. Brown added 62 tackles including five for loss and a sack.
“Blaine Howard was the heart and soul of the defense and played with a high level of toughness during his four years as a varsity player,” Hall said.
Farmer had 52 tackles, 13 for loss, and 10 sacks for Columbia in 2020.
The fifth and final Suwannee player, sophomore Jay Smith, highlights the secondary. Smith had an area-leading six interceptions for the Bulldogs this season. Among those was a 97-yard pick-six that turned the tide in the opening round of the playoffs.
“Jay Smith is without a doubt one of the most gifted players in North Florida,” Hall said. “He has a chance to choose his college of choice when the time comes.”
He is joined in the secondary by Bradford senior Dontae Balfour. Balfour returns kicks and punts along with playing wide receiver, but he represents this All Area team on defense. That’s because he racked up 77 tackles with four interceptions and one fumble recovery for the Tornadoes, who advanced to the 4A-Region 1 semifinal.
“Dontae is an outstanding player,” Bradford coach Brian Tomlinson said. “He works hard to be the best competitor he can be and is as good of a young man as he is a football player.”
Columbia senior Shyheim Brown and Gainesville junior Ryan Nolan round out the secondary.
Brown had 64 tackles, including seven for loss and four sacks—while also played some receiver for the Tigers.
Nolan is Gainesville’s only representative on the All Area Team, due in part to a COVID-19 shortened season. The Hurricanes played only six games, finishing 2-4, but the defense steadily improved along the way. Nolan logged three interceptions and 50 tackles, in addition to scoring three touchdowns on offense and special teams.
A panel of local sports writers and coaches chose the 2020 All Area Team from Mainstreet’s eight-county coverage area. Each of the 48 players and two coaches honored will receive a commemorate plaque. To see the full roster, including photos and honorable mentions, click here.
Bradford: Dejon McBride (DL, So.), Bryson Bowen (LB, So.), Sterling Roberts (Secondary, Sr.)
Buchholz: Jesse Modican (DL, Sr.), Eric Alvarez (LB, Sr.), Ej Gadson (LB, Jr.), D.J. Curtis (Secondary, Sr.), T.J. Williams (Secondary, Sr.)
Columbia: Amare Ferrell (Secondary, So.), Jaden Robinson (Secondary, So.)
Eastside: Zatavion Rushing (DL, Sr.), Tyler Brooks (LB, Jr.), Tajawuan Welch (Secondary, Sr.)
Gainesville: Stanley Cook (DL, So.), Brandon Bowden (DL, Jr.), Jahari Clemons (DL, Jr.), Ahman Covington (LB, So.), Dyoni Hill (Secondary, Jr.)
Santa Fe: Najhay Calhoun (DL, Sr.), Balin Strickland (LB, Sr.)
Suwannee: Brian Robinson (DL, Sr.), Travis McKinney (Secondary, Jr.)
This is the fourth of a five-part series highlighting the 2020 All Area Football Team, presented by Mainstreet Daily News and The Prep Zone. To read the other stories and see a full roster of honorees, click here.