Every so often when some of Highland Springs’ football coaches hang out and talk this season, a debate ensues about the program’s best defensive team under head coach Loren Johnson.
“What I say to myself is they all played for Highland Springs, so that’s the best thing,” said Johnson, who took over in 2008. “I don’t even get into what team is better, what defense is better.”
This defensive edition seems to belong near the top. With several high-caliber recruits, Highland Springs (8-0) goes after its fifth Class 5 state championship in six years on Saturday with five shutouts and just 31 points allowed.
The Springers blanked defending Class 5 champ Maury 13-0 last week in the semifinals. The Commodores, averaging 36 points, managed 41 yards rushing and 122 passing.
Getting through that stone wall is the task that awaits high-scoring Stone Bridge of Ashburn (8-0) at 2 p.m. at Varina High. The teams are meeting in the final for the fourth time in the past six seasons; the Springers won the previous three matchups in 2018, ‘16 and ‘15.
“I really think it’s one of the best defenses I’ve seen and that we’ve played against,” said Stone Bridge coach Mickey Thompson, whose program is making its 10th appearance in the state final and will test Highland Springs with an offense that is averaging 58 points, hasn’t scored fewer than 42 and has punted twice.
“They’re really well coached. They’re sound. There’s no weakness. There’s nothing you feel like you can attack. We’re going to have to play every play.”
The Springers had a stingy defense on the 2018 state title team (15-0) that beat Stone Bridge 37-26 for the championship. That team had six shutouts and allowed more than 8 points just three times.
Behind defensive coordinator Devon Simmons and his staff, this edition sports lineman Kelvin Gilliam and back Damond Harmon going to Oklahoma; another back, Jamareeh Jones, going to Boston College; and another back, Jabari Parker, headed to Virginia Tech as a preferred walk-on.
No one on either side of the ball has gaudy stats for the Springers because they use so many players. They’ve had 16 players run the ball (Jordan Jackson, headed to Saint Francis, has 760 yards and nine touchdowns). Fourteen players have caught a pass. Four quarterbacks have played, along with six linebackers and eight defensive backs.
“We have kids who play defense who want to play offense, and I have to tell them they can’t,” Johnson said. “It’s too many guys. It’s no need for us to have to play everybody on both sides of the ball.
“You don’t get to redshirt a kid in high school. So why make them sit? If they’re good enough to play, let them play.”
The Springers are disruptive up front with Gilliam, a 6-foot-4, 260-pounder who has 22 solos, 15 assists and seven sacks, Rashaud Pernell (6-2, 240, six sacks) and Payton Jackson (11 solos, 14 assists, four sacks). Linebacker Victor Wilson has 21 solo tackles and 20 assists, and linebacker Da’Von Edwards has been in on 23 tackles and has an interception.
Then there’s the secondary. Parker said the 2018 group dubbed itself “The Seat Belt Gang,” and this group has carried on the name.
“Every time you get an incomplete pass or an interception, you kind of do [an imitation] like you’re strapping a seat belt on,” Parker said. “You strap ‘em up.”
Harmon has 11 tackles, seven assists and four interceptions. Jones has been in on 30 tackles. Daquan Giles has been in on 34 and has two interceptions.
“In addition to having great players, we’ve got some great coaches,” said Johnson, a former defensive back at Virginia Tech. “Coach Simmons is a math teacher by trade. He’s a bass fisherman by hobby. He’s got a lot of patience with the kids, but he’s very integral in how he gets things done. And then he has a group of guys who work well together.
“The philosophy is this: If they can’t score, they can’t win. I’ve always been taught you put your best 11 guys on defense. The thing here is, though, you don’t have the best 11. You might have the best 33, 34. We’ve been very fortunate with that.”