There’s an old adage that defense wins championships.
While that wasn’t the case for two area teams, it was the defense that gave Hawthorne and Oak Hall an opportunity to play in the Class 1A and 8-man state championship games, respectively.
Plus, Union County (Lake Butler) rode its defense to two playoff wins in Class 1A.
Hawthorne and Union County headline the inaugural Mainstreet Daily News/The Prep Zone All Area Football Team with seven combined selections on the small school defense. A panel of local sports writers and coaches chose offensive and defensive teams for both small and big schools in our eight-county coverage area. All 48 players and two coaches will receive commemorate plaques to recognize their accomplishments.
“Overall, I thought we had a fairly good defensive season this year,” said Hawthorne defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins, whose team lost 27-14 to Baker in the Class 1A state championship game. “Obviously there are a few games where I wish we played better, but I was excited and very pleased with how our kids responded to coaching and the assignments that were given to them each week. We demand a lot from our athletes, and the defense was up to the challenge throughout the year.”
Hornets’ sophomore Jailen Ruth was among the area leaders with 131 tackles. The defensive lineman added 13 sacks and 27.5 tackles for a loss for Hawthorne (10-3), including nine against Baker in the title game.
“He has a motor that rivals any kid I’ve ever coached,” Adkins said. “Makes up for size and strength with speed and energy. Works constantly each day to try and improve and implements coaching into his overall game.”
His teammate, linebacker Jayquan Williams, whom Adkins called the “heart and soul of the defense,” led Hawthorne with 134 tackles. The junior, who has been a three-year starter, finished 2020 with 16.5 tackles for a loss.
“He is the most physical kid on the team and makes it a priority to stop the run and set the physical tone each and every day,” Adkins said. “I’m excited about him going into his senior season.”
Rolaundus Watson, a first-year player who moved to outside LB/DE, is the third Hawthorne Hornet on the small school defense. He finished third on Hawthorne with 103 tackles, including 11 tackles for a loss.
Just as dominant were four players in the purple and gold from Union County (8-4)—Trevor Holtzendorf (LB, Jr.), Curran Webb (DL, Jr.), Solomon Jones (DL, Sr.), and Malcolm Odum (CB, Jr.).
They were part of a defense that pitched three shutouts, including two in the postseason.
Holtzendorf led the Tigers this season with 122 tackles. He also added three sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss.
“Leader on the defense, high motor, non-stop energy,” said first-year Union County football coach Andrew Thomas. “He’s what you want from a middle linebacker.”
Webb added 77 tackles, including 25 tackles for a loss. He also led the team with 11.5 sacks.
“He’s a playmaker on defense off the edge,” Thomas said. “Seems to always be around the ball.”
Jones led Union County with 27.5 tackles for a loss, tying Ruth of Hawthorne for area-high numbers. He finished with 72 total tackles.
Odum finished with 65 tackles in the Tigers’ secondary.
The other secondary players to make the team include Yarnell McCray of P.K. Yonge (CB, Sr.) and Andrew Pickens (CB, Sr.) of Oak Hall.
McCray finished with 27 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, and one defensive touchdown. He also had a kickoff return for a touchdown.
“When Yarnell is on the field in any phase of the game, the other team has to account for him,” said former P.K. Yonge football coach Marcus McDonald, who stepped down at the end of the 2020 season. “He impacted the game in so many ways for us, and that is why he is co-MVP for us.”
Pickens was a first team Sunshine State Athletic Conference selection. He logged 38 tackles, three tackles for a loss, and five interceptions for the Eagles (9-1), who were undefeated until they lost to All Saints’ Academy (Winter Haven) in the 8-man state championship game.
The senior was like a Swiss Army Knife for the Eagles, as he also rushed for 715 yards and 11 TDs, threw three TD passes, and returned a punt for a score.
“[All Area] means a great deal to me, but it’s really a testament to my team’s hard work this season,” Pickens said. “I couldn’t have done it with them.”
Rounding out the All Area team were Caleb Morgan (LB, Sr.) of Trenton and Isaac Williams (DL, Sr.) of Williston.
Morgan tied for the team lead with 84 tackles for an average of 9.3 tackles per game for the Tigers, while Williams had three sacks and averaged seven tackles per game. He led the team with 10 tackles for a loss.
Honorable mention: Branford: Matt Warren (LB, Jr.); Bronson: Amariaun Dallas (DT, Sr.); Chiefland: Elijah Flanders (DL, Sr.), Jacob Kline (DL, Sr.); Dixie County: Paras Clines (DL, Jr.), Scott Hysmith (LB, Sr.), Kolton Hunt (Secondary, Jr.); Fort White: Mahri Roberts (LB); Hawthorne: Artavis Mallary (DL, Jr.), Chauncey McFadden (LB, Sr.), Camrin Cohens (Secondary, Jr.), Maki Graham (Secondary, Jr.); Newberry: Leontre’ Robinson (DL, Sr.), Malachi Jackson (DL, Jr.), Mason Markle (LB, Jr.), Tyreke Williams (Secondary, Sr.); Trenton: Tristan Sloan (MLB, Jr.); Union County: Paden Clyatt (LB, Sr.), BJ Harvey (Secondary, Sr.); Williston: Kamarious Gates (DL, Jr.), Clayton Nesler (LB, Sr.)