Dalvin Cook and Joseph Yearby powered Central to the Class 6A state championship game a year ago by running the ball.
But this season, the Rockets are within one victory of going back thanks to their talented duo doing much more.
In addition to playing quarterback, Yearby has lined up in the secondary, as has Cook.
And they are just two of the five offensive starters along with Tavius Brown, Roderick Carter and Trevon Nottage that have seen plenty of action on defense to bolster an inexperienced group that struggled early in the season.
“There’s nothing selfish about this team, and that’s what makes it better,” said senior safety Da’Wan Hunte, a North Carolina State commitment. “For those guys to sacrifice their positions and play more on defense and help us out didn’t get us mad. I felt like it was an honor. I’m proud of those guys, and they’ve helped us do a lot of great things this year.”
On defense, Central had to replace its starting front four and seven starters overall from last year’s state runner-up squad.
Its offensive stars’ efforts during a monstrous schedule that included games against Grayson (Ga.) and Bradenton Manatee (both ranked No. 1 nationally at the time the Rockets played them) as well as four other playoff teams allowed a defense time to gel and play its best football at the most crucial point of the season.
After allowing 24.3 points per game during the regular season, Central is giving up only 5.3 in three playoff games and its starting defense has allowed only seven points during that span.
The Rockets (10-2), who are on a nine-game winning streak, know they will need another such performance Friday night when they play undefeated Naples (12-0) on the road in a Class 6A state semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Central is vying for its third consecutive trip to the state final.
“I’ve got to credit our coaches for working hard with those young guys all season,” Central coach Telly Lockette said. “The kids from the 2009 to 2011 teams set the foundation for these guys. They had a lot to carry after they left. But they’re starting to calm down and understand their roles.”
Cook returned a fumble against Northwestern and an interception against Booker T. Washington for touchdowns in key moments of each of those games that helped the Rockets win both.
Brown, an undersized 5-8, 160-pound junior receiver, made game-clinching interceptions in victories over Booker T. and Carol City.
But the defensive players earned the trust of their coaches as the season progressed, allowing Central to use its two-way players as a complement in certain situations instead of a necessity.
“My seniors have really stepped up and are playing at a great level,” Central defensive coordinator Max Edwards said. “The preparation has been at a different level in the playoffs. They’re paying more attention to detail and communicating better on the field.”
Hunte and fellow senior safety and team captain Ahmad Thomas, a University of Oklahoma commitment, said the key to the turnaround was the maturity of the starting defensive line composed of senior ends De’Vante Duclos (team-high eight sacks) and Devyn Reid (59 tackles, seven sacks), junior tackle Twan Adams, senior tackle Chrisopher Herise, along with junior nose tackle Raul Diaz and junior lineman Keon Burgess.
Junior Johnathan Harris, who leads the team in tackles with 81, and seniors Marquis Hodge and Brandon Diaz have backed them up at the linebacker position.
Brown has continued to start at cornerback thanks to his productive season. But in addition to Brown, Hunte and Thomas, the biggest strides according to Lockette have been made by sophomore cornerback Deatrick Nichols, who has a team-high three interceptions.