County leader Howard High's quick start (5-1 overall, 3-1 in county) is providing proof that when it comes to stopping the run, as well as the pass, speed is a more valuable commodity than how much a player tips the scales.
A major reason Howard has allowed opposing offenses just 43 points through six games is the Lions' overall team speed, with six players running the 40 in 4.6 seconds or less.
"We've got small, quick athletes. You don't see a whole lot of size out there on the field," Howard coach John Quinn said. "But other than against Centennial, where we let them score at the end of the game to win, I've been very happy with our defense."
Howard's fleet half-dozen features senior linebackers Guy Smith and Scott Struther, who post 4.5 times, as well as senior defensive backs Carlton Fox, Dalawn Parrish, Brian Bush and Eddie O, all of whom have been clocked at 4.6.
"A lot of teams are bigger than us, but slower. So we're able to fill the gaps quicker than any team around," said Smith, who also leads the Lions in rushing with 575 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Howard defensive coordinator Jerome Jefferson said, "It's real hard for a team to get a long run against us because we have guys in the secondary that can run just about anybody down."
Fox, who intercepted three passes in a win over North Carroll, believes knowing his defensive teammates are blessed with speed adds confidence on the field.
"We know we've got the fastest team in the county," Fox said. "Even our linemen run 4.9 in the 40, which is real good for that position."
Secondary speed might be the soul of Howard's defense, but the Lions' heart can be found in senior lineman Seth Eldridge, a 5-foot-7 nose guard who weighs 175 pounds.
"He's just tough as nails," Quinn said. "Unfortunately he is the last of the Eldridge brothers. I asked his father if he could produce just one more for me."
In a win over Hammond, Eldridge used his quickness to recover a fourth-quarter Golden Bears fumble that set up Smith's winning touchdown. Against Glenelg, Eldridge played the final minutes of the game with no feeling in his right hand, which was put in a cast after his doctor was unable to determine if it was broken.
"I got hit from behind and my wrist twisted underneath my body and two guys fell on top of me," Eldridge said. "But I'll play against Oakland Mills, even if it means cutting the cast off."
Quinn credits Jefferson with much of the success behind Howard's multi-set defense, citing his coach's ability to get his players hungry to practice.
"The speed and the discipline has been the key for us and we've gotten some great back-up from the reserves when they step in for the starters," said Jefferson, who is in his fifth season at Howard.
Jefferson' two top reserves are junior linebacker Turrae Jones and sophomore linebacker Kenny Neal. Jones returned an interception for a touchdown to seal last weekend's 20-6 win over Glenelg, and the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Neal has surprised the coaching staff since being called up from the junior varsity early in the season to help give Smith some time to rest.
One thing that Jefferson will not tolerate from his players is on-field trash talking to an opponent.
"On the high school level there has been an increase in players getting caught up in a lot of talk," Jefferson said.
Jefferson's disciplined message has become his players' tackling motto. "We all say 'Don't talk with your mouth, talk with your pads,' " Smith said.
Eldridge said Howard is not looking past tonight's game against Oakland Mills, but he admits he and his teammates have a trip to Wilde Lake next Saturday in the back of their minds.
"It's tough to block that game out, especially since we lost to them in a close game last year," Eldridge said.
"But our loss to Centennial this season is our only disappointment so far. Luckily that game woke us up. Hopefully, it won't come back to haunt us late in the season."