As he begins his fifth season as the football head coach at Sumter High School, Mark Barnes believes he might have a secret weapon --- at least for the first few weeks - hidden in plain sight of the Gamecocks' opponents.
The forward …
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The forward pass.
"It's going to take teams playing us two or three weeks to figure out we're really doing it," Barnes said of throwing the football with a higher frequency than in years past. "And for some of our own fans it's going to take a couple of weeks for them to figure out we're doing it. We're going to be much more open offensively."
The reason Sumter is going to toss the football around much more than it ever has under Barnes is because of junior quarterback Hayden Vasquez and a strong group of wide receivers led by senior North Carolina commitment Tylee Craft and senior Georgia Southern commitment Tony Dinkins-McCall.
Vasquez saw a significant amount of time last season as a sophomore as a backup to senior Ontra' Harvin. He played in eight games, completing 22 of 34 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns against one interception.
"We brought him up end of his freshman year, so he was part of all that, and it was quite a close quarterback battle last year," Barnes said. "If we felt like we needed to throw ball more, he would have been the guy last year, but we went with Ontra' because we were running the ball. But we played him last year -- by design -- because we knew he was going to be the guy for us this year.
"I'm sure our receivers will tell you they're excited about this year because Hayden, quite honestly, is the first guy we've had, at least since I've been here, to be able to throw the ball, and do it consistently and throw it in the right spots."
Dinkins-McCall is the leading returning receiver with 51 catches for 679 yards and eight touchdowns. Craft had 21 catches for 400 yards and five scores."Offensively, this is the best skill player group we've had since I've been here," Barnes said. "We can be a lot more multiple offensively.
"We've got to utilize our weapons. We've got four guys good enough to take it to the house (for a touchdown) every time they touch the ball."The Gamecocks will have to replace The Sumter Item Area Player of the Year in running back Jonathan Henry. He averaged 117 yards rushing per game, picking up 1,287 yards and 19 touchdowns on 227 carries. His replacement is Justice Wells, who saw significant time -- by design as Barnes pointed out. Wells played in all 11 games, rushing for 528 yards and eight touchdowns on just 59 carries.Sumter, which went 10-1 last year, will have to replace four of five starters on the offensive line. That includes tackles Zion Nelson, who will be starting at left tackle for Miami on Saturday against Florida, and tackle Tayvian Gass, now at Wofford.
"This is probably the first time since I've been here that we've had to replace most of the offensive line," Barnes said. "The offensive line is a question mark for us. We played some juniors down on JV (junior varsity) last year to make sure they played. I think it's better to play on Thursday night than not play on Friday."
Defensively, the Gamecocks will be led by senior defensive back O'Donnell Fortune, a South Carolina commitment. Barnes is really happy with the depth he has at linebacker, both inside and outside, but he admits there are a few questions that need to be answered."I think our defensive front guys are a question mark because we're young there, but I think we'll be OK," he said. "We've got some sophomores we're counting on there.
"We're solid at three of the four defensive backs, but we're probably going to play a freshman or a sophomore at the other one. I've been coaching for 31 years, and I don't ever remember playing a freshman on Friday, but that might happen."
Sumter went undefeated in the regular season, winning the Region IV-5A title before losing to Byrnes in the second round of the state playoffs. The Gamecocks have gone 38-9 in Barnes' four seasons, winning region titles in three of those four seasons. Yet they have not advanced past the second round in any of those seasons.
Barnes said one of the program's goals when he took over was to be relevant in the state playoffs. He feels that has been accomplished, and that it is now time to seal the deal.
It's not like we're a long ways off. We're really, really close."
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