Balanced Sussex Central more than just defense

GEORGETOWN — The defensive unit has grabbed all the headlines for Sussex Central High this football season.

And deservedly so.

The third-seeded Golden Knights (10-1) have allowed just 48 points, recorded 39 sacks, picked off 13 passes and blocked five punts on their way to a Division I semifinal appearance at No. 2 Dover High (9-1) tonight at 7:30 p.m.

But it’s Central’s rushing attack that wears down opposing defenses and racks up points for coach John Wells’ one-loss Golden Knights.

In 11 games, including last Friday’s 36-7 first-round playoff win over Appoquinimink, Sussex Central’s offense has accumulated 2,577 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns on 376 carries. That’s good for a 6.9-yards per carry average.

Eight different runners have registered 15 or more carries this season and seven different runners have scored at least one rushing touchdown.

“It’s a team-first motto,” said Wells. “They’ve all bought into it, and you have to tip your hats to them. A lot of teams don’t have the luxury of having the running back depth we have. We’re lucky to have kids who are all interchangeable, equally as talented and unselfish.”

“It’s great, you have pretty much every style of back,” said senior starting quarterback Isaac Barnes. “We have a power back, we have a speed back, the back that can block. It really helps me out a lot because they’re getting their yards, they’re doing their job, so it makes my job easier.”

Senior running back Zion Reed leads the team in carries (88), rushing yards (545) and rushing touchdowns (seven), but he knows it’s a total team effort. And he’s okay with sharing the work load with his teammates.

“We have athletes all around the field,” he said. “When we get the ball in our hands, we just do our best to score.”

Behind Reed, junior Shihiem Williams has run for 511 yards and five touchdowns while junior Tyzhir Sheppard-Parker has racked up 507 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

“We have a lot of depth, a lot of talent on this team,” Williams said. “We have everything: Power, speed, big, small, so we can do it all. We all rotate in, everyone gets the ball and it keeps us fresh and balanced.”

Williams has also reeled in 12 catches for 210 yards and another three touchdowns through the air, giving him a team-high 721 yards from scrimmage.

Behind those three backs, sophomore Phillip Stratton has carried the ball 47 times for 362 yards and five touchdowns. Stratton missed a portion of the season due to injury, but picked up where he left off once he returned to the field.

Junior Jaden Savage has recorded 113 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries and freshman Jeremiah Wilson has 67 yards on 16 carries.

Junior Kasim Lewis has carried the football just 15 times this season, but he’s perhaps been the most effective with those touches. His 233 yards put him fifth on the team in rushing and his six touchdowns on the ground put him behind only Reed in that category.
He leads the team with a 15.5-yards per carry average.

“We’ve been playing together for so long, it’s like a family,” Lewis said. “It’s not like a football team, we’re a family. Everyone knows how to play, everyone knows what each of us can do. Everyone’s looking for one thing. All together, we just want one thing: to win.”

“It’s not how many carries you get, it’s about what you do with the ball — and without the ball,” Wells said. “I’ve talked to a lot of college coaches over the years and they want to see what kids are doing when they’re not getting the ball on offense. Are they still playing hard?”

An effective ground game can truly open up the passing game, and that’s just what it’s done for Isaac Barnes.

Barnes has completed 55 percent of his passes (57-of-103) for 1,033 yards, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 10 games this season. He’s also added another 169 yards and four touchdowns on 38 rushing attempts.

“We all want the same thing,” said Barnes. “As long as we’re winning, we don’t care. If it’s a win, everyone’s winning. We’re not worried about who has the most yards, who has the most touchdowns. It’s all about the team right now.”

His twin brother, Isaiah Barnes, has been his go-to weapon in the passing game.

Isaiah has reeled in a team-high 16 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown. He’s also been the driving force of the defensive unit, leading the team in total tackles (100) and interceptions (six).

Junior tight end Dominique Smith has a team-high five touchdown receptions, while junior Javon Toppin has added another four touchdown catches.

In the last meeting with Dover — a 21-0 shutout on Sept. 28 at home — Central ran for 350 yards and three touchdowns, while the defense held Dover’s top rusher, Javon Peace, to seven yards on 11 carries.

It was Peace’s only game of the season in which he was held to under 130 yards rushing and didn’t score at least one touchdown.

“Right now, in my head. it’s just another football game,” Isaac Barnes said. “This week, everyone has to move to the ball and we have to put points up early. We did that last time, and, if we do that again, I think our defense can do their part of the job and we’ll be successful.”

“This is the biggest game of my career. Semifinals, we’ve never made it this far,” Reed said. “I’m just going to go out there, play hard and do my job.”

Reach staff writer Ben Heck at bheck@newszap.com

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