Miami Central defensive ends Keivonnis Davis and Keir Thomas each had high praise when talking about Daytona Beach Mainland sophomore Denzel Houston — the quarterback they’re facing Friday night.
But taking down superstar quarterbacks has been the Rockets’ specialty in this year’s playoffs.
“He plays a lot like [former Booker T. Washington quarterback] Treon Harris,” Davis said. “He’s real athletic and can run and step up and make big plays in the pocket. We have to do our best to contain him.”
Houston will be the latest talented quarterback to test the Rockets’ menacing pass rush Friday when they face Mainland (13-0), ranked No.12 nationally by MaxPreps, at 7:30p.m. in a Class6A state semifinal at Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium.
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Central (12-1), ranked No.7 nationally by USA Today and winner of 36 of its past 38 games, has defeated Mainland twice in the state semifinals — in 2011 and 2013 at Traz Powell Stadium — and beat the Bucs in Daytona in its regular-season opener in 2009.
The Rockets’ defense, which has totaled a whopping 71 sacks this season including 24 in the playoffs, knows putting pressure on Houston is the key to disrupting a Mainland offense that has totaled 4,895 yards and is averaging 35.4 points per game.
“Our defensive backs have to keep their head up against [Houston], but we’re going to bring the pressure all night,” Davis said. “The competition on this defense has brought us all together and it was scary when we all got on the same page.”
Houston has thrown for 2,783 yards this season, and thrown 34 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions on 184 of 290 attempts. He also has run the ball 84 times for 575 yards and scored nine rushing touchdowns.
Central has habitually made such prolific dual-threat quarterbacks look feeble this postseason.
In the regional quarterfinals, the Rockets sacked Boynton Beach quarterback Lamar Jackson, a senior Louisville commit, nine times and held him to 36 yards passing on three completions to win 49-6.
The following week, Hallandale junior Tyler Huntley fared the best of any of them, finishing with 275 yards passing and two touchdowns. But most of it came in the first half before the Rockets turned up the pressure and sacked Huntley four times in the second half to finish with five for the game as Central scored 28 unanswered points in a 35-19 win.
Last week, Palm Bay Heritage quarterback Daeshawn Mills ran for only 34 yards and passed for 63 while succumbing to Central pressure 10 times in a 20-12 Rockets’ win. A week earlier, Mills ran for 348 yards against Naples.
How important has the pass rush been?
Central has posted three or more sacks in each of its 12 wins this season with 10 games of five sacks or more.
Central was held without a sack for an entire game only once this season — its lone loss to fellow national powerhouse and rival Miami Booker T. Washington, 21-20.
The Rockets defenders have made it a healthy in-squad competition to see who can total the most sacks by season’s end.
“We’ve been at it all season off the field,” Thomas said. “But we decided to start counting sacks as team sacks because it’s about all of us as a team. We feel like we developed a brotherhood on this defense.”
But when it comes to actual games, Thomas said when the team stopped looking at individual goals early in the season is when things began to click.
Senior Fermin Silva (6-2, 225 pounds), an FIU commitment, has anchored Central’s defensive line with eight sacks and 57 tackles this season.
Thomas (6-2, 220), a junior, has opened plenty of eyes with his stellar play.
Thomas has the University of Miami among his several college suitors, and leads the team in sacks with 17 to go along with 67 tackles.
Davis (6-2, 215), a Syracuse commitment, has 14 sacks, and junior Donovan Thompson (6-0, 215) has a team-high 134 tackles (96 solo), which ranks third overall in Dade and 10 sacks.
Senior Marquis Couch (6-0, 225), a Marshall commitment, has eight sacks, and senior Tamerick Simpson (6-3, 205) has nine sacks, six of which have come in the playoffs.
The linebackers also have gotten into the act against opposing passing games.
Senior Olin Cushion (5-9, 170), another FIU commitment, has 55 tackles and five interceptions and 6-3, 180-pound junior safety Jamel Cook has a team-high five interceptions.