Miami-Dade High Schools

District 16-6A preview: Miami Central aims for national title

Central celebrates after defeating Bothell High in the Burger King State Championships Bowl Series at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida, Dec. 27, 2014.
Central celebrates after defeating Bothell High in the Burger King State Championships Bowl Series at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida, Dec. 27, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Two exciting chases are expected to develop this season in what is again a talent-rich District 16-6A field.

Nationwide, many will watch heavily-favored Central’s chase for that elusive national championship.

In addition to seeking its fourth consecutive state title that would extend a county-record currently shared with Miami Booker T. Washington, the Rockets could be ranked as high as top five nationally when those rankings debut later this month.

Central’s defense, which totaled 83 sacks last season, is loaded with stars such as end Keir Thomas, safety Jamel Cook (both FSU commits), end Eric Mitchell (UF commit), who transferred from Norland, and linebacker Donovan Thompson (FIU commit).

Central added a major offensive weapon in receiver Darnell Salomon, a transfer from Champagnat Catholic, to an already potent offense anchored by one of the best offensive lines in the nation led by junior Navaughn Donaldson (a University of Miami commit).

If the Rockets can get past their season opener against another nationally-ranked opponent, DeMatha (Maryland), look for Central to begin a quest for the national title.

TIGHT RACE

The other chase is very familiar for followers of South Florida high school football.

Miami Northwestern survived a tiebreaker with Miami Carol City and Miami Norland last season after the three teams all went 1-1 against each other during the regular season.

Barring one of them becoming a serious threat to mighty Central’s reign at the top, figure that these three will again engage in a tight struggle for the district’s other playoff berth.

THE CHALLENGERS

Carol City and Norland each have different reasons people may think it can contend the best and hang tough with the Rockets.

For Carol City, it’s offense.

The Chiefs showed off its firepower on that side of the ball throughout the summer, winning tournaments such as the Dolphins 7-on-7.

Leading the attack again will be senior quarterback Steve “Buckshot” Calvert. He’ll have plenty of options on an offense stacked with talented receivers such as senior Steve Newbold, Kevaughn Dingle and Montray Smith. The Chiefs will also play some solid defense with eight starters back on that side of the ball, led by senior defensive tackle David Hood and junior linebacker De’Andre Wilder.

Carol City has been a slow starter the past couple of seasons and must reverse that trend this year in order to reach the playoffs.

The Chiefs went 0-4 over the first month last season before winning four of five games to force the district tiebreaker. Carol City couldn’t complete the comeback, however, losing to Northwestern and missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

DOMINANT DEFENSE

For Norland, the key to the postseason will again be its defense.

Things took a downward turn in October. Norland lost its final four games, culminating with a loss to district newcomer Hialeah-Miami Lakes.

The Vikings, however, had one of the stingiest defenses in the county, allowing 16 points per game.

Despite the graduation of cornerback Carlton Davis and defensive end Eric Mitchell transferring to Central, Norland will have plenty of talent on that side of the ball again this season. Linebackers Emmett Rice (FSU commit) and Vosean Joseph (UF commit) are among the best.

The secondary will also be solid, led by safety Kion Holder, a Kent State commit, and cornerback Val Mayes Jr.

If the Vikings offense — which has most of its key players returning, including junior offensive tackle Kadeem Telfort, a UF commit — comes around, it could clinch its first playoff berth in three seasons.

BULL PRIDE

A disappointing finish marred a great start by Northwestern last season.

The Bulls opened the season 4-0 with dramatic wins against Jacksonville Raines, Carol City and Blanche Ely.

But a tough 17-16 loss to Norland sent Northwestern spiraling to a 1-6 finish down the stretch, culminating with blowout losses to Jackson in the Soul Bowl and Hallandale in the first round of the playoffs.

The Bulls managed to clinch a berth in the district runner-up tiebreaker, thanks to its one victory against Homestead during that otherwise negative stretch. Northwestern then beat Carol City to clinch a playoff berth.

After one season, Northwestern parted ways with coach Eddie “Rabbit” Brown, who has since been hired by Boyd Anderson, and hired Central defensive coordinator Max Edwards in December.

This will be Edwards’ second stint at Northwestern, where he coached from 1998 to 2004 under Billy Rolle and later Roland Smith. Edwards coached during Central’s five-year run of four state titles and one state runner-up finish, and has been part of six state championship teams and two more state runner-up teams during his 22-year career in Dade.

Edwards will try to bring that same success to a Bulls team that returned only two starters from last season and plays a daunting schedule that includes Plantation American Heritage and Booker T. in non-district games.

Edwards has one of the county’s better quarterbacks to build around, however.

Sophomore Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell threw six touchdown passes last season and should improve with a year of experience as the starter. A talented running game led by senior Corey Lane and some talented underclassmen should help.

NEW ADDITION

Hialeah-Miami Lakes, which has not made the playoffs since 2005, joins this difficult district for the next four seasons after Homestead moved up to Class 8A. The Trojans are the biggest underdog among the group but have some talent to be competitive.

HML finished the season with some momentum after four consecutive wins, including a 3-2 triumph over Norland. The Trojans also beat rival Hialeah for the first time in nine seasons. They return several starters, including senior running back Malik Shannon and senior two-way starter Malik Burns, who had over 80 tackles and 10 sacks in 2014.

DISTRICT 16-6A OVERVIEW

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER

Darnell Salomon, Central: He’s got speed, great hands and leaping ability. This senior transfer from Champagnat Catholic caught 27 passes for 673 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and is being targeted by some of the best college programs in the country. Salomon should fit right in with the Rockets’ explosive offense following the graduation of Da’Vante Phillips.

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER

Emmett Rice, Norland: Central collectively is one of the best defenses in the country. But over at Norland, this talented 6-3, 195-pound outside linebacker could be the most dangerous in the district. Rice is ranked among the top five linebackers in the state by 24/7sports.com and the top player in Miami-Dade County at his position. The early Florida State University commit totaled 94 tackles and 18 sacks last season and should make the Vikings a force in a very tough district.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Central; 2. Carol City; 3. Norland; 4. Northwestern; 5. Hialeah-Miami Lakes.

CAN’T-MISS GAMES

Oct. 3, Carol City vs. Central (Traz); Oct. 16, Norland vs. Carol City (Traz); Oct. 17, Northwestern vs. Central (Traz); Oct. 23 Northwestern vs. Norland (N. Miami); Oct. 30; Carol City vs. Northwestern (Traz).

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