Prep football | Manatee Hurricanes defensive line works as band of brothers

Star-studded defensive line a tight-knit group

jlembo@bradenton.comNovember 23, 2012 


Practice had just ended, and the four big guys who make up Manatee's defensive line were sharing big laughs while standing in the shadow of Hawkins Stadium.

Demarcus Christmas, the 6-foot-4, 284-pound junior tackle who could sack a quarterback using nothing more than his steely glare, mocked Derrick Calloway's skills as a rapper.

Seniors Calloway and Marquis Dawsey, the latter of whom is the group's elder statesman and leader, remembered when Blake Keller went through an entire practice while wearing a piece of cheese on the front his helmet.

Keller, the line's lone white player, put his arm next to Christmas' and smiled.

"We look like a family," Keller said.

Watch them on a Friday night and it's clear how this line was anointed the best in the country by

A mix of power, speed and technique, the quartet has teamed for 40 sacks heading into Friday's Class 7A-Region 3 semifinal against visiting Venice, proof that last year's star-making turn in the state championship game -- the line registered five sacks against Jacksonville First Coast and split the game's MVP award -- was the furthest thing from a joke.

Watch them after practice, however, and it's clear they share more than the same position coach.

"We're a family," said Calloway, a 6-2, 310-pound senior tackle. "We want Manatee to win, so it's not about us individually."

It's a serious group on game nights, a cornerstone for a Hurricanes team that is 11-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally by MaxPreps, ESPN and USA Today.

And it's a serious group during practice.

Away from all that, however?

"We all joke and play around," said Keller, a senior defensive end who stands 6-2 and weighs 215, "all the time."

It's a group that came together quicker than expected.

A year after reaching a state final for the first time since 1993, Manatee entered the 2010 postseason stocked with potential and an unblemished record. But during a regional quarterfinal against St. Petersburg Northeast, defensive linemen Drakkar Wilson and Quinton Pompey suffered ligament tears in their knees on consecutive series.

Both underwent surgery, and Pompey never played again. Calloway was thrown into the starting lineup along with Keller, who lined up at nose guard during that year's Region 3 final at Palm Bay Bayside.

"These boys came in here ready and full of intensity," said the 5-11, 229-pound Dawsey, a four-year starter and the lone holdover from the previous line. "We're a physical bunch. I think we're just like the other line, maybe better, in my opinion. I think we can be better than them if we just keep working."

Christmas joined the fold last season, when the group helped Manatee win a state title for the first time in 19 years.

Prior to this year, Rivals wrote "just try to find a more star-studded defensive line on any high school campus across the nation."

"It starts with Coach (Steve) Gulash," Manatee coach Joe Kinnan said, referring to the Canes' defensive line coach. "He does a great job coaching them. They're talented, but they play good technique and they play with aggression. They all can run, they're all big, they complement each other.

"Probably the word that would describe them is relentless. When they make up their mind, they're awfully good."

There is nothing that says a unit has to get along to play well. But for Manatee's line, the camaraderie is a bonus, and a bond has developed between four unique personalities who like to hang out at Keller's house because he has a pool.

Dawsey is the funny one.

"Hilarious," Calloway said, remembering a recent walkthrough where Dawsey was jumping and down, full of mock enthusiasm, while working with the punt team.

"He was acting like it was the only position he played," said Calloway.

Keller, according to Dawsey, is "different," a good word to describe someone who once wore nacho cheese on his helmet.

"The stuff he says and the stuff he does is out of the box," Dawsey said of Keller.

Christmas isn't as quiet as he seems.

"He's quiet around you guys," Keller said, referring to the media.

As for Calloway?

"He's not the best rapper alive," Christmas said.

It's a group that cares for each other, too. Keller was floored by a hit while playing special teams earlier this season against Miami Central, a hit that enraged Calloway, Christmas and Dawsey.

"No matter how much we get hurt, we're going to play our hearts out, no matter what," Calloway said. "And to see him down, it was like, 'Hold up, this is not normal.' We're not used to that. We got real emotional."

Calloway credited Gulash for helping the remaining linemen rein in their anger. And after Manatee put the finishing touches on a win, they rushed to Keller's side at the hospital.

"It made me feel really good," Keller said, "because I was just there all alone."

They're there for each on the field and off of it. Calloway may not tell the coaches he's banged up during a game, for instance, but he'll tell Dawsey, and Dawsey will help him out.

And now their time is about to end. Win or lose, Friday likely will mark Manatee's final home game of the season, and even if Manatee gets back to the state final, the most the linemen have together is four more games.

So expect the big guys to share more big laughs, especially if they keep dishing out big hits.

"We're going to still have a good connection to college, and we're still going to talk to Little Man over there," Calloway said, referring to Christmas.

"We just like to be on the field together, playing," Dawsey said. "We're going to miss playing together, so we're just trying to enjoy every moment."

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