Tyrell Barnes said he remembers the play like the back of his hand.
It was Oct. 7 and the Hammond quarterback signaled to his wide receiver before the snap. Barnes knew exactly what was about to happen.
"I was calling the play and I saw the quarterback and from film I knew it was a slant coming," he said. "I slide step, slide step, go through my progression and I see the slant, and right then I knew I got one. He's not even looking at me. He turned his eyes but it was too late."
Barnes hit the Golden Bears receiver over the middle of the field and, like a double-leg wrestling takedown, lifted him into the air and finished the tackle with authority. The play sparked a Wildecats 30-0 shutout win that night and was snapped in perfect time in a picture that is pinned to his Twitter account.
"It was one of those situations where you sort of watch the play and it's one of those deals where it seemed like it was going in slow motion," said Wilde Lake coach Michael Harrison. "As a coach you just have to scratch your head and wonder to yourself a little bit, 'How was he able to go about doing that?' But our expectation was that he was going to make that play every time. ... He was sort of able to do the things like that that were above and beyond, even as a coach, what you're trying to get a kid to do."
The tackle was just one of several big moments for the senior linebacker, as he finished with 154 tackles, the most made by any county defender since Hammond linebacker Nate Gant had 156 in 2008. His county-leading total was also 14 more than any player in the state this year, according to MaxPreps. Barnes made at least 10 tackles in every game, averaged 14 per contest in 11 games, and had 20 for loss.
All that, paired with the fact that he led Wilde Lake to its first playoff appearance and best record (7-4) since its state-championship season in 2010, makes Barnes this year's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Defensive Player of the Year.
"It's a huge honor to be the next Wildecat to be Defensive Player of the Year," said Barnes, who is the first Wilde Lake player to earn the honor since EJ Gilman in 2010. "I was just ballin' out this year. ... I had a sense throughout the season that I was getting a lot of tackles, but not 154. I was hungry, man, and I had a knack for finding the ball."
Barnes started each of the last two years at middle linebacker for the Wildecats and was responsible for making all the defensive calls on the field. He was also a team captain who did whatever he could to help his squad, no matter the situation.
"He was in both years, I felt, a tremendous asset for us on defense," Harrison said. "He's got quite a high level for a high school football player, for a linebacker — the ability to make adjustments and run a defense on the field. He was more than a captain for us. He was like having a coach on the field with us all the time."
Despite all the tackles and big plays, Harrison said one of his biggest impacts Barnes had this fall was one that he made on offense.
The Wildecats were 0-2 and dealing with a number of injuries on their offensive line when Harrison asked for volunteers to play the offensive line position against Glenelg.
"He was one of those guys that after we finished the meeting he came up to us and said if you need me to play line I'll play line," Harrison said. "He winds up starting as an offensive tackle and middle linebacker that game and plays awesome on both sides of the ball. ... Just the selflessness to volunteer to play offensive line when you're 6 feet 3 inches and weigh 175 pounds; I think that helped us in a critical part of our season."
Barnes made 17 tackles and forced a fumble in the fourth quarter of the 20-14 victory over the Gladiators, and the Wildecats won seven of their last eight regular season games to qualify for the 3A East regional playoffs.
"We were down 14-0 and we knew we had to step up. We stopped them the rest of the game and the last drive coach was telling us that someone had to make a play," Barnes said. "I saw the opportunity to go for the ball and went after it and got it. It was a big play."
Barnes, who had 86 tackles his junior season, said getting interest from college coaches was one of his biggest goals entering the year. His big season has gotten the attention of several college programs, including Division-I teams Marist, Stony Brook and Saint Francis and a number of Division-II and Division-III schools. He said he plans to play football in college and hopes to make a decision soon.
Harrison said he expects Barnes to excel at the next level and that he leaves a positive legacy at Wilde Lake.
"I think he'll be remembered as one of those guys that was able to do whatever it took to be successful," he said. "To be a high school football player you don't always have to be the biggest guy or the fastest guy — I think it's a lot more than that and I think that's what his lasting impact on our football program will be. We'll be able to ask kids if they are doing the same kinds of things that Tyrell did to be successful."
McHemba finished with a league-best 14 sacks, after tallying 7.5 last year, to go with 63 tackles. Strunk said things started to click for McHemba late in the season as he learned how to be patient as a pass rusher and set up opposing offensive linemen.
"Muddy brought a lot speed from his position," he said. "His ability to contain opposing offenses — run and pass — allowed the rest of our team to pursue and attack. His legacy will be to stay aggressive and keep your motor running."
Voted as a team captain by his teammates, McKinney improved each year and this season developed into one of the Lightning's top defenders.
"Damon was a guy who showed up to every team function and did not miss a day," said Long Reach coach Jamie Willis. "He made no excuses and only wanted to achieve his full potential and for his teammates to achieve theirs."
He finished the season with 33 tackles, including 13 solo and two for loss. He had five tackles and one for loss against Centennial.
"The moments I think of from this past season for Damon was a play against River Hill in which they ran a quarterback draw and he fought off a double team and made the tackle for a 2-yard loss," Willis said. "The other was against Oakland Mills in which he was able to get pressure on the quarterback and force a fumble to help set the tone in the game."
Dimeji Olyainka, Howard, senior.
A second-team all-county selection last year, Olyainka was a leader by example and was always the first one in the weight room and the last one out, according to Lions coach Bruce Strunk.
"Although Dimeji is a gifted athlete, he worked non-stop," Strunk said. "Whether it were drills, team or scout team, Dimeji was always working. This attitude made Dimeji successful and also aided greatly to our team's success."
He racked up 12 sacks, second in the county only to his teammate Muddy McHemba, added 67 tackles and forced four fumbles. His willingness to learn and improve the team in any way possible made him a great leader, Strunk said.
"Prior to the season he came to me and said he was willing to play tight end if we needed him to because he wanted to help wherever it was needed," Strunk said. "It was significant that he was willing to play or learn a position which he hadn't played."
Sean Washington, Atholton, senior.
Washington was one of the best all-around defenders in the county this year and carried the Raiders in the second half of the season.
"Sean was an important aspect of our team," said Atholton coach Justin Carey. "We had some injuries defensively half way in the season and Sean stepped up as a leader."
Washington had 78 tackles, including 12 for loss, and was third in the county with 10 sacks. He had at least one sack in all but two games. In a season-opening win over Marriotts Ridge he had a breakthrough game and impressed his coaching staff along the way.
"He was in the backfield all night from his defensive end spot," Carey said. "We did not know what to expect from him but he had nine tackles and a sack. He continued that trend.
"Sean brought intensity everyday. Sean had the, 'I can't be beat or blocked' type of mentality that made him successful this season."
One of the best two-way players in the county and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Benton was the "unquestioned voice of our team this past season," Lightning coach Jamie Willis said.
The United States Military Academy commit had 103 tackles, including 61 solo and nine for loss, to go with a pair of sacks. Benton forced two fumbles in a win over Glenelg, both of which resulted in scoring drives. He also pitched in offensively as a bruising running back and finished the season with 191 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, including all four scores in a 25-20 win over Atholton.
"His leadership on and off the field, as well as the example he set for his peers in the classroom, is why he will be a great leader as he goes on to serve our country and play football," Willis said. "Each day Greg brought intensity to the game and to practice of wanting to be the best player he could."
Ryan Kearney, Howard, junior.
Kearney made his presence felt in a variety of ways on defense for the Lions this year. He was a quiet leader who did everything well. Howard coach Bruce Strunk calls him "the perfect linebacker for the era of the spread offense."
"He has the combination of size, high football IQ, speed and the ability to play in space," he added. "Ryan might be the fastest linebacker I have coached in 28 years."
He finished the season with 109 tackles and three interceptions, but it was during a scrimmage before the season when Strunk knew he had a special player.
"During one of our scrimmages, an opposing player broke contain and had a lot of [room] in front of him. Not only did Ryan catch this running back but he tackled him for a loss," he said. "At that moment I knew this young man would be able to fill the shoes of graduated all-county linebackers (Zac Robinson and Vanden Vale)."
Donovan Nicastro, River Hill, senior.
A three-year varsity starter, Nicastro was a dynamic two-way player who led the team in tackles and rushing yards.
"He is a senior and captain of this year's team," said Hawks coach Brian Van Deusen. "He is an aggressive, physical player and good tackler."
Nicastro notched 110 total tackles, the fourth-most in the county, which included 10 for loss and 66 solo. He also had 5.5 sacks. At running back, he had 510 rushing yards and five touchdowns and caught another.
Nicastro had several big games for River Hill this fall. He notched 10 tackles and a pair of sacks against Marriotts Ridge and made 15 tackles to go with 100 yards rushing and two scores versus Mt. Hebron. He almost never left the field and was a leader on and off the field for one of the youngest teams in the county.
Donny Place, Howard, senior.
Place followed in the footsteps of a number of all-county linebackers to graduate from Howard and filled the role by racking up the third-most tackles (112) in the league for the county's best defense.
"Donny is a great combination of strength, speed and brains," said Lions coach Bruce Strunk. "A first-year captain, he led by example, demonstrating toughness and a love of team."
An example of Place putting the team first came when he played in a game after being injured the week before.
"During the game Donny came to the sideline and told me, 'If I don't look good out there take me out because I don't want to hurt the team.' This exemplified leadership and responsibility to his teammates to put the best 11 on the field even if he is not one of the 11," Strunk said.
Strunk added that Place was the quarterback of the defense and that he leaves a legacy as another quality linebacker to suit up for the Lions.
Chad Brown, Long Reach, junior.
Brown's play-making ability was on full display during the first game of the season against Mt. Hebron. With no time remaining in the first half, Brown intercepted a pass and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown.
"Chad was a playmaker and 'baller' for us this past season," said Lightning coach Jamie Willis. "He was a player who was very instinctual and always wanted to make a play."
Brown finished the year with 65 tackles, numerous pass break-ups and his five interceptions were tied for the second most in the county. He had a highlight one-handed interception in a close game against Reservoir.
"Chad was a ball hawk. ... His ability to read the quarterback's eyes and break on the ball was second to none," Willis said. "He was also a solid tackler, helping to limit explosive runs against our defense.
Craven has arguably been the best defensive back in the county over the last two seasons and his numbers back it up. He led the county with nine interceptions last season as a first-team all-county selection and, despite missing five games because of a broken leg, led the league in interceptions again this season with eight.
"Bryson came back to lead the team in interceptions and punt-return yardage," Lions coach Bruce Strunk said. "His return was important to the team's success toward the end of the season and through the playoffs."
Craven had two key interceptions in a close win over Long Reach, and against Atholton he returned a fumble for a touchdown.
"Bryson has a lot of god-given talents and a high football IQ," Strunk said. "He brings a lot of experience to a young group of defensive backs. He is one of the better defensive backs that Howard has had in the past five years."
Saleem Jackson, Wilde Lake, sophomore.
In one of the most talented sophomore classes the county has seen in recent years, Jackson was arguably the league's top defender of the group. As a safety, he finished second in the county behind teammate and Defensive Player of the Year Tyrell Barnes with 115 tackles to go with two interceptions.
"Saleem has the ability to cover the long ball and make a tackle for a loss on back-to-back plays," said Wildecats coach Michael Harrison. "As a safety he has a unique combination of skills that allows him to play deep but also come up and play in the box with the linebackers."
In two games against Glenelg, Jackson combined for 31 tackles and five for loss. He made 10 or more tackles in seven of 11 games this season.
"Saleem has heart. He is not the biggest defender on the field but he plays every bit as hard as athletes that are twice his size," Harrison said. "Saleem brings it on the field each and every play."
Jasen Parkins, Atholton, senior.
A first-team all-county selection for a second straight season, Parkins didn't miss a beat this fall.
"Jasen means a lot to our program," said Raiders coach Justin Carey. "He is a three-year starter that has played with a different group of guys for three years. With his experience, he led by example on and off the field."
He had 58 tackles, three interceptions and a knack for the end zone. With the score tied at 7-7 in the second quarter against Centennial, Parkins recovered his own blocked punt and scored on a 43-yard return. He also has five interceptions returned for touchdowns over the last two seasons.
"What Jasen brought to the table each day was enthusiasm and determination that he helped instill in other players," Carey said. "He has characteristics of leadership, perseverance; he's detail oriented and has a strong will to win. Jasen's legacy was he was one of our top defensive backs at Atholton."
Evan Riss, Oakland Mills, senior.
Riss is one of the top lacrosse players in the state and is committed to play at Ohio State, but on the gridiron he was one of the Scorpions' best defenders.
"Evan was also a team captain and our defensive leader," said Oakland Mills coach Tom Browne. "He's a smart kid who was able to get everyone on the same page and lined up correctly on defense. He is one of the most versatile kids in the county as he played strong safety, left tackle and returned punts for us. Not too many kids can say they played that combination of positions."
The four-year varsity player had 105 tackles and two interceptions, including one in a close game versus River Hill. Browne said Riss is one of the key players who helped turn around the program over the last few years.
"He was a true team player who was willing to play whatever role the team needed for us to be successful," he said.
Cooper McGeehan, River Hill, junior.
McGeehan never left the field for the Hawks this fall, as he started on offense and defense and was the team's kicker and punter.
He had 38 tackles and a pair of interceptions on defense. As a wide receiver, he was a great blocker who also made several key plays, including catching the only touchdown in one of River Hill's biggest wins of the season over Atholton.
Punting, however, is McGeehan's specialty and this year he excelled, averaging 38.2 yards per punt with 11 punts inside the 20-yard line and six inside the 10. He also made four field goals.
In the Hawks' playoff upset over Long Reach, McGeehan had an interception and made two field goals, including a game-winning 42-yarder into the wind.