SMYRNA — When Smyrna High takes the field for the Division I state football title game, the main characters from the Eagles’ rise to prominence will look the same.
Senior Nolan Henderson, a University of Delaware commit, will be at quarterback and junior Will Knight, the state’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, will line up behind him at running back.
But it’s the supporting cast on the Smyrna offense which is completely new this year.
Helped out by the emergence of a young group of wide receivers, the second seed Eagles are back in the championship game for a second straight season. Smyrna (11-0) will take on top seed Middletown (11-0) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Delaware Stadium.
None of the current wide receivers started on offense during last year’s playoff run. The core group is made up of two sophomores and two juniors. That doesn’t include junior Leddie Brown, who rotates between wide receiver and running back.
But despite the lack of experience coming into this season, the Eagles’ receivers haven’t fallen off.
“From the time from the championship was over we knew they were going to be the guys,” Henderson said. “I knew that’s who I was going to be throwing to. Really we just kept working together and that has brought us closer. Every week they’ve improved, They get better every single day of practice. Really it was chemistry and them learning their routes, how to cut and just learning all the little things.”
Sophomore Emon Roberts is Smyrna’s leading wide receiver with seven touchdowns and 676 yards. His 39 receptions are tops on the team — 10 more than the next highest, Knight.
Roberts, like junior Marcus Vass, were backups in 2015. Vass also took one of the vacated wide receiver spots when the Eagles graduated all four wideouts from last year’s championship squad. Despite missing four games due to injury, Vass has recorded three touchdown catches and averages 23 yards a game.
Stephen Whaley spent last season as Knight’s backup as running back. In an effort to get him on the field more, Smyrna switched him to wide receiver for his sophomore year.
The results have been impressive. Whaley has four touchdown catches — none bigger than the game-winner with less than a minute left on fourth down in Smyrna’s closest contest this year, a 22-14 victory over Sussex Central.
Whaley also caught a 27-yard touchdown catch this past weekend against William Penn in the semifinals, a 48-0 Smyrna win.
“His transformation is pretty crazy,” Henderson said. “He’s amazing. At the beginning he was just starting to play receiver. Now he’s one of the best in the state. That goes back to the hard work he put in.”
Smyrna also rotates Knight and Brown, their two main playmakers, between wide receiver positions and running back. Knight has nine receiving touchdowns to go along with 20 rushing touchdowns while Brown has seven touchdown catches and 13 rushing touchdowns.
The final cog in the Smyrna offense is junior Keshaun Tolbert. Tolbert was Knight’s primary backup in 2014 before playing a number of different positions as a sophomore.
He has moved to wide receiver but also takes over at running back late in games if Smyrna wants to rest Knight and Brown. For the season, Tolbert has caught one touchdown and rushed for three more.
“We always knew that those seniors were going to be gone,” said Smyrna senior captain offensive lineman Jerren Carter. “Those young guys had to step up. They’re not young anymore. They had to fill in these roles and get us to where we needed to be. They’re a great group of kids and they got a great group of coaches helping them.”
Like Whaley, Smyrna coach Mike Judy said Tolbert, “Could start at running back for most teams in the state,” but has made sacrifices in terms of playing time for the Eagles.
“They’ve worked hard the whole year,” Henderson said of the younger players around him. “They’ve bought in and realized that it was going to take a lot of hard work. Nothing was just given to them. They took it and ran with it. We’ve kind of taken them under our wing and taught them a little but they really hit the ground running. We feel like we’re confident in them and they’re confident in us.”
Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at firstname.lastname@example.org