Secondary options: WPIAL standouts choosing a future in defensive backfield
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When an Aliquippa youngster makes a backyard interception, the kid with the ball doesn't always shout the traditional “Oskie.” At times, a spirited “Rell Reeeev” can be heard instead.
It's a tribute to Darrelle Revis.
“Everybody screamed his name,” said Dravon Henry, who counts himself among those who at times mimicked the NFL cornerback from Aliquippa when playing tackle football as a kid in the parking lot at Valley Terrace Apartments.
In most towns, kids dream they're the quarterback. In Aliquippa, the defensive backs have become heroes.
It was 10 years ago that Aliquippa won the state championship with a senior class that included Revis, and these current Quips were impressionable grade schoolers in 2003. They closely watched the cornerback become an Aliquippa legend, a college standout, an NFL first-round pick and ultimately an All-Pro millionaire.
“We were little in these stands watching them play on this field,” said Henry, seated among the wooden bleachers at Carl A. Aschman Stadium. “Now kids are saying, I want to be a defensive back. Be just like Darrelle Revis. Be just like Ty Law.”
And maybe someday, just like Dravon Henry?
“I hope so one day,” he said with a smile. “That's why I work so hard. A couple little kids will run up to me now yelling: ‘Dre! Dre!' That makes me start thinking, man, I've got to make it. I want to be like Darrelle. I want to do what they did. Leave a memory here.”
With Revis, a four-time Pro Bowl selection and six-year NFL veteran, as an inspiration, Henry joins a number of WPIAL recruits who believe defense could be their ticket to success.
Consider New Castle's Malik Hooker, who declined wideout offers (including from Pitt) and verbally committed to play defensive back at Ohio State. The 6-foot-2 senior also passed on potential basketball offers, believing he could follow a route similar to Revis, who also was a multisport star.
“If you're an athlete, no matter what you say, your dream is to make it pro,” Hooker said. “That's all athletes' goal. When they said that, that was motivation for me. That drives me harder in practice to make it and be either just as good as Darrelle Revis or even better.”
Best of the bunch
Henry has the talent to rank among Aliquippa's best defensive backs, said his coaches, and that's a list that becomes very crowded near the top.
There were Law and Revis. There's Tommie Campbell, now a cornerback for the Tennessee Titans. There's Josh Lay and Charles Fisher, who were NFL draft picks. There also was Dan “Peep” Short, who started at Pitt in the early 1980s, along with a number of others who played college football.
After a brief time playing professionally, Short became defensive coordinator at Aliquippa in 1989 and soon thereafter began crafting defensive backs. From his experience, he told them the secondary was their best chance for success.
“If you look at the numbers, each team college or otherwise needs at least eight or nine defensive backs,” said Short, who moved Henry from linebacker to safety in ninth grade. “You have a better opportunity to get a scholarship. When it comes to receivers, everybody has that cookie cutter who's 6-foot-4 and runs the 40 (yards) in 4.3 (seconds). At defensive back, you can be anything from 5-foot-8 on up.”
Which backfield to choose?
The 5-11, 190-pound Henry (who's similar in size to Revis) has scholarship offers from more than two dozen schools, including regional favorites Penn State, Pitt, Ohio State and West Virginia, but Michigan and UCLA have recently entered his consideration. As a 4,000-yard career rusher with 65 touchdowns, some schools could envision him at tailback on Saturdays.
But Henry doesn't.
“Being a (college) running back beats on your body,” he said. “I'd rather punch the other person in the face than have them punch me in the face.”
A year ago, Henry rushed for 1,919 yards and 31 touchdowns, leaving him just 1,280 short of Chico Williams' school record (5,417). He played safety last season to rest his legs, but could move to cornerback, his projected college position.
ESPN ranks him as the top player in Pennsylvania (No. 131 nationally), and Scout.com lists Henry among the country's 100 best recruits. Rivals.com, which labels him a four-star recruit, has him at No. 168.
“You look at him on film and you say this guy can play on both sides of the ball,” said Adam Friedman, Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “I honestly do think he would be a very good Division I running back. But it comes down to his motivation. It depends on where he wants to play. That's where he's going to play his best.”
Inspired by WPIAL greats
Gateway's Justin King and Woodland Hills' Ryan Mundy also reached the NFL in recent years as defensive backs. Their success, along with those before them, have inspired some of today's recruits to examine defense more closely.
Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams could become the WPIAL's career passing leader this season. Temple has recruited the 6-foot senior as a quarterback, but Rutgers and others want him in their secondary.
“I'll have to do some hard thinking,” he said, “about whether I want to pursue the quarterback dream or take my best shot at the league and play defense.”
Gateway has two of the WPIAL's best senior defensive backs in safety Montae Nicholson and cornerback Anthony Davis, a Temple commit. Nicholson has drawn praise at receiver but ranks among the nation's best defenders, according to national recruiting sites.
Central Valley junior Jordan Whitehead knows Revis' story well since the two are cousins. Whitehead, a talented tailback, has Ohio State and others recruiting him at corner.
His coach, Mark Lyons, has noticed that as passing attacks have improved around the WPIAL, so too has the league's defensive secondaries.
“You used to begin with stopping the run and move backward,” Lyons said. “Now when you're building your defensive structure, it's almost flipped. You're going to have to take away the passing game and force them into some running situations where you can load the box.”
Mimicking his swag
A talented secondary with seniors Henry, Terry Swanson and Jyier Turner, all two-way starters, has Aliquippa as early Class AA favorites in both the WPIAL and the state. As sophomores, they lost in the PIAA semifinals. Last season, they lost in the title game.
“I'm not going to lie, last year still hurts 'til this day and it's going to hurt,” Henry said. “We know how that felt, and we don't want to feel that this year.”
Henry spent time this summer with Revis for his summer camp at The Pit. The two also have worked out together at a gym in Aliquippa. Revis, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has shared tips on jamming a receiver and improving Henry's backpedal.
“You know me, I always look up to him and try to copy,” Henry said. “He plays with so much fire and so much intensity. He goes in there with a swag like, you're not about to catch this ball on me. I think that's how I got my game.”
Kevin Gorman contributed. Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.
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