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Baltimore Sun high school football preview: Storylines, players to watch and top 15 teams heading into the 2021 season

Here’s what you need to know for the 2021 high school football season in the Baltimore area:

Storylines to watch

For the teams that did not compete last season, what are the challenges that come with losing an entire year of program building?

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Baltimore City, Harford County and some individual schools, most notably perennial private school power McDonogh, did not get an opportunity to play last school year and also missed out on many offseason activities, leaving those programs with a several questions to answer entering the 2021 season. For expected senior leaders, they weren’t given the chance to learn from the past year’s senior leaders, and for coaches, they are basically working and developing two new classes. Overall, the team camaraderie that is formed by players hanging out at school, in the weight room and during weekends was lost. Team leadership and great coaching will allow teams that missed time to shine.

How much more vital does quality quarterback play become with area teams coming off a partial season or none at all?

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Immensely. With less experience among the surrounding cast, quarterbacks will be leaned on heavily this fall to provide leadership and a steadying influence. There are several quality signal callers looking to help their teams get over the top. Most are returning players, but one of the most notable is McDonogh’s Kaden Martin, a blue-chip prospect who transferred from Tennessee and is the son of former Volunteers quarterback and current Ravens wide receivers coach Tee Martin. Others worth watching are four-year starters John Griffith (St. Frances) and Josh Ehrlich (Broadneck) along with Glenelg’s dual-threat star Bisi Owens.

Biff Poggi, left, pictured with Gilman where he coached for 19 seasons, is leaving as St. Frances' football coach to join the staff at the University of Michigan; Messay Hailemariam, right, is taking over as Panthers coach, a job he held from 2011 to 2015.
Biff Poggi, left, pictured with Gilman where he coached for 19 seasons, is leaving as St. Frances' football coach to join the staff at the University of Michigan; Messay Hailemariam, right, is taking over as Panthers coach, a job he held from 2011 to 2015. (Baltimore Sun photos)

Will St. Frances still dominate without coach Biff Poggi?

The Panthers have been the team to beat in the Baltimore area for years now, but whether that continues without Poggi, who left for Michigan in July, will be something to watch. Messay Hailemariam, who previously served as head coach at St. Frances from 2011 to 2015 and worked on Poggi’s staff the past four years, said the program’s mission will remain just as ambitious.

River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen is closing in on a career milestone.

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It’s possible the coach entering his 22nd season would’ve won his 200th game during a regional championship last season, but Van Deusen made the most of the time the Hawks were on the field by going 5-0 and outscoring Howard County opponents by 16 points per game. River Hill is expected to be just as good this fall, so expect Van Deusen — who is 196-50 during his tenure at the Clarksville school — to reach that impressive milestone sometime in October.

River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, pictured in 2019, is closing in on win No. 200 for his career.
River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, pictured in 2019, is closing in on win No. 200 for his career. (File photo by Steve Ruark)

With so much unknown and COVID still affecting teams, expect the unexpected this fall.

It’s safe to say, more so this fall than ever before, that you should expect some chaos. In one way or another, high school football has been limited in some capacity for more than a calendar year, and many rosters will feature players with little to no varsity experience. That doesn’t mean those teams should be counted out, however. New squads and players — ones that can remain on the field as the Delta variant surges, at least — will rise to the top and separate themselves soon enough. It’s just a matter of when.

Players to watch

Offense

Broadneck quarterback Josh Ehrlich is entering his fourth year as the starter.
Broadneck quarterback Josh Ehrlich is entering his fourth year as the starter. (Paul W. Gillespie)

Josh Ehrlich, Broadneck, quarterback, senior

Despite the Bruins only playing four games last season due to COVID-19 restrictions, Ehrlich already owns program records in passing yards (4,870) and passing touchdowns (67) as he enters his fourth season. A dual-threat — he’s also rushed for 877 yards and 13 touchdowns in 25 career games — he’s competitive, confident and has an accurate arm that pays dividends with the Bruins often looking to make big plays downfield.

John Griffith, St. Frances, quarterback, senior

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bowling Green commit, a pro-style quarterback, is set to start his fourth season and has proven to be the steadying influence in leading the Panthers to their national-level success in recent years. Griffith is a fierce competitor who stays calm under pressure, bringing a strong arm and knack for moving the chains.

McDonogh's Preston Howard, passing between Mount St. Joseph linebackers Nate Slutzky (44) and Brandon Fique (48) during the 2019 MIAA A Conference championship game, will move from quarterback to wide receiver this fall.
McDonogh's Preston Howard, passing between Mount St. Joseph linebackers Nate Slutzky (44) and Brandon Fique (48) during the 2019 MIAA A Conference championship game, will move from quarterback to wide receiver this fall. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Preston Howard, McDonogh, wide receiver, senior

With Tennessee transfer Kaden Martin taking over the quarterback duties, Howard will take his speed and athleticism to the wide receiver position. The 6-5 225-pound Maryland commit, who also plays in the secondary, is a game-changing playmaker on both sides of the ball. As a sophomore signal-caller, he was a 1,000-plus yard passer and rusher.

Kaden Martin, McDonogh, quarterback, senior

The 6-1, 215-pound transfer from Tennessee’s Knoxville Catholic High takes over at quarterback, bringing a high football IQ, strong leadership and an accurate arm. Committed to play football and baseball at Miami, he’s the son of former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, who is the Ravens’ wide receivers coach.

Rodney Nelson, Franklin, running back, senior

After a fine partial season in his junior year — rushing for 459 yards on 35 carries (13.1 yards per carry) with four touchdowns in four games — Nelson is primed for a workhorse load as the focal point of the offense. Drawing attention from Division I schools, he’s a complete back with power, breakaway speed and excellent vision. Franklin wants to get the ball to Nelson in open space and let him take it from there.

Liberty running back Tommy Nelson, running against Westminster in the spring, had 891 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019 and finished with 512 yards and four scores in five games for the Lions during the spring campaign.
Liberty running back Tommy Nelson, running against Westminster in the spring, had 891 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019 and finished with 512 yards and four scores in five games for the Lions during the spring campaign. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Tommy Nelson, Liberty, running back, senior

Nelson has been one of the top running backs in Carroll County for two seasons. He had 891 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019 and finished with 512 yards and four scores in five games for the Lions during the shortened spring campaign, when he earned all-county honors for the second time.

Bisi Owens, Glenelg, quarterback, senior

As a dual-threat playmaker, the 6-4 Owens is a dynamic force that breaks down opposing defenses with his arm and legs. Proof came in last year’s partial season when — in three games — he threw for 404 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 179 yards and six more scores as the Gladiators averaged 41 points per game. Also a safety, Owens had two interceptions, one sack and a forced fumble last year.

Glenelg quarterback Bisi Owens threw for 404 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 179 yards and six more scores as the Gladiators averaged 41 points per game.
Glenelg quarterback Bisi Owens threw for 404 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 179 yards and six more scores as the Gladiators averaged 41 points per game. (Photo courtesy of Israel Carunungan)

Devin Roche, Dunbar, running back, junior

An electric performer at 5-9, 185 pounds, Roche will be the Poets’ ultimate weapon on offense, whether running for big yards from the backfield or catching passes from the slot. Drawing attention from several Division I colleges, including Maryland, Roche ran for 1,700-plus yards on JV as a freshman before getting called up to varsity for the 2019 playoffs.

Andre Roye, St. Frances, offensive tackle, senior

At 6-5, 285 pounds, Roye, a three-year starter, is a dominant force in pass protection and consistently opens big holes in the run game. A former basketball player, he brings athleticism, quick hands and feet and experience to anchor the Panthers’ line.

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Severna Park kicker Trey Smack is one of the nation's top kicking recruits and committed to Florida.
Severna Park kicker Trey Smack is one of the nation's top kicking recruits and committed to Florida. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Trey Smack, Severna Park, kicker, senior

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A former soccer player, Smack is ranked the No. 3 kicker in the country by Kohl’s Kicking, a national recruiting service for kickers and punters. The 6-3, 210-pound Smack, who swings a big right foot, trained with former Ravens kicker Matt Stover to improve his technique, which helped him commit to Florida this summer after entertaining offers from Navy, Air Force and Virginia Tech.

Defense

Lavar Banks, Edgewood, cornerback, senior

Always around the ball, the 5-10, 180-pound playmaker brings lightning-quick speed and quality game sense to shut down opposing wide receivers. Likely to play at cornerback in college, Banks, the younger brother of Maryland cornerback Deonte Banks, also is a big threat on offense in the slot and an exceptional kick returner for the Rams.

Jaishawn Barham, St. Frances, linebacker, senior

A four-star prospect who is still undecided on a college choice, the 6-3 230-pound Barham has a knack for making big plays during his time at St. Frances. In addition to his special athletic traits — explosive speed and power — Barham brings high intensity to the field that gets teammates revved up.

McDonogh's Dani Dennis-Sutton recently committed to Penn State.
McDonogh's Dani Dennis-Sutton recently committed to Penn State. (McDonogh Athletics/Hudl)

Dani Dennis-Sutton, McDonogh, edge, senior

One of the country’s top recruits suffered an elbow injury, but isn’t expected to miss much time. A highly explosive 6-5, 260 pounds, the Penn State commit is a major disruptor in the trenches with a combination of power, speed and energy. Selected to play in the 2022 All-American Bowl in January, Dennis-Sutton piled up 45 tackles and six sacks in 2019.

Braxtyn Koch, Winters Mill, punter, senior

An important cog on special teams for the Falcons — he’s also an outstanding kicker — Koch averaged 39.7 yards per punt last season, pinning 12 inside the 20-yard line and also booming one 70 yards. The son of Ravens punter Sam Koch, he’s also made a big impact in the secondary on defense.

Derrick Moore, St. Frances, edge, senior

The 21st-ranked prospect by ESPN in the 2022 class, the 6-4, 250-pound Oklahoma commit brings rugged play to consistently dominate the line of scrimmage. An explosive first step is the starting point that wreaks havoc on opposing offenses.

Calvert Hall's Daniel Owens celebrates a touchdown against Spalding in 2020. Owens is considering offers from Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Syracuse.
Calvert Hall's Daniel Owens celebrates a touchdown against Spalding in 2020. Owens is considering offers from Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Syracuse. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Daniel Owens, Calvert Hall, edge, senior

A 6-2, 245-pound rusher, Owens was a disruptive player on both sides of the ball — he also plays tight end — as a sophomore in 2019. A rising recruit, Owens had two sacks against John Carroll in the season opener and announced last month he is considering offers from Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Syracuse.

Anto Saka, Loyola Blakefield, linebacker/edge, senior

Having first started playing organized football in his sophomore year, the 6-4, 240-pound playmaker has made up for lost time in a hurry. With his natural strength, quickness and athleticism, the Northwestern commit brings a high motor and knack for big plays.

Lavain Scruggs, Archbishop Spalding, defensive back, senior

Scruggs had played some safety and cornerback for the Cavaliers and will be the leader of the back end after the graduation of Penn State commit Zakee Wheatley. At 6-2, 190 pounds, the Maryland commit has the size to get through blocks and a nose for the ball.

McDonogh lineman Kwan Williams hammers Mount Saint Joseph quarterback Billy Atkins IV in a 2019 game. Williams finished with 73 tackles and 1.5 sacks that season.
McDonogh lineman Kwan Williams hammers Mount Saint Joseph quarterback Billy Atkins IV in a 2019 game. Williams finished with 73 tackles and 1.5 sacks that season. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Kwan Williams, McDonogh, tackle, senior

At 6-2, 295 pounds, the Boston College commit is a run-stuffer supreme, and attention drawn on him gives his teammates freedom to make plays. As a sophomore in 2019, Williams finished with 73 tackles and 1.5 sacks as an anchor on the Eagles’ formidable defensive line.

Kellen Wyatt, Archbishop Spalding, linebacker, senior

A Maryland commit and four-year starter, Wyatt has do-everything skills that enables him to impact games a variety of ways at outside linebacker. With a high-end motor and instincts to match, Wyatt stops the runs, gets to the quarterback and also drops back in coverage. In two games last season, he piled up 12 tackles and one sack.

Preseason top 15 teams

1. St. Frances

Coach: Messay Hailemariam

Last season: 0-2

Outlook: Hailemariam, who was the Panthers’ head coach from 2011 to 2015, returns after the departure of the former coach Biff Poggi. Having served as an assistant the past four years, he’s aware of the program’s ambitions and has a roster stockpiled of blue-chip talent to work with. Four-year quarterback John Griffith and offensive tackle Andre Roye are keys on offense, and defensive end Derrick Moore and linebacker Jaishawn Barham are game-changing disruptors on a fast and aggressive defense.

2. McDonogh

Coach: Hakeem Sule

Last season: DNP

Outlook: On paper, the Eagles are clearly in the same company of mighty St. Frances with a roster filled with blue-chip talent. But having last played in 2019, there are new players that must learn the program’s culture and expectations. The foundation is impressive with quarterback Kaden Martin, son of former Tennessee standout Tee Martin, running the offense and former quarterback Preston Howard (Maryland commit) moving to wide receiver in addition to his defensive duties. The defensive line will dominate with Dani Dennis-Sutton (Penn State) and Kwan Williams (Boston College) the key cogs.

Spalding football coach Kyle Schmitt during a game against Calvert Hall in November 2020.
Spalding football coach Kyle Schmitt during a game against Calvert Hall in November 2020. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

3. Archbishop Spalding

Coach: Kyle Schmitt

Last season: 2-0

Outlook: Despite the pandemic significantly limiting last season, the Cavaliers have a wealth of experience led by a senior class that features several four-year varsity players. Team speed and size on both lines are at a premium with quarterback Nick Gutierrez the starting point on offense and across-the-board talent on defense led by linebacker Kellan Wyatt and safety Lavain Scruggs.

4. Mount Saint Joseph

Coach: Dominic Damico

Last season: 1-0

Outlook: The 2019 MIAA A champions had a significant senior class last year that only got on the field once, leaving a talented but largely inexperienced group this season. Sophomore quarterback Winston Watkins has a couple of big-play wide receivers in Dominic Kibby and Tre Goodridge. Senior Steven Schulze is the glue on each line at center and defensive end.

Franklin coach Anthony Burgos.
Franklin coach Anthony Burgos. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

5. Franklin

Coach: Anthony Burgos

Last season: 4-0

Outlook: With seven starters back on offense — led by quarterback Quentin Demery, running back Rodney Nelson and a dangerous wide receiver core — the Indians plan to control play and score plenty of points. On defense, which returns five starters led by linebacker Santra Collins, the key will be controlling the line of scrimmage while a talented but inexperienced secondary settles in at the varsity level.

6. Calvert Hall

Coach: Josh Ward

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Last season: 0-2

Outlook: With 14 starters back — eight on offense and six on defense — the Cardinals are looking to make up ground in the demanding MIAA A Conference. Quarterback Noah Brannock will throw to slotback Rahkeem Smith and tight end Daniel Owens, while the Cardinals feature three quality running backs to share backfield duties. Owens is also a standout defensive end that joins linebackers Dylan Aguilera and Matt Conroy as leaders of a fast and aggressive defense.

Milford Mill head coach Reggie White gives a speech to his team during the first day of football practice on Aug. 11.
Milford Mill head coach Reggie White gives a speech to his team during the first day of football practice on Aug. 11. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

7. Milford Mill

Coach: Reggie White

Last season: 5-0

Outlook: Five starters return on both sides of the ball with senior quarterback Tahseen Howard looking primed to take over for graduated standout Rishon Holmes. The Millers have good size on both lines — senior Daniel Ufua is a special talent at the edge on defense — and several playmakers at the skilled positions on offense to score points.

8. Broadneck

Coach: Rob Harris

Last season: 4-0

Outlook: The clear favorite in Anne Arundel County, the Bruins have nine starters back on offense led by four-year quarterback Josh Ehrlich and game-changing players in running back Davion White and wide receiver Kyle Pierce. Expect them to consistently pile up first downs and put up plenty of points. On defense, the Bruins will lean on a veteran linebacking unit led by Dom Downs while newcomers along the line and in the secondary settle in.

Broadneck coach Rob Harris has words with his team after a scuffle on the field against South River on March 26.
Broadneck coach Rob Harris has words with his team after a scuffle on the field against South River on March 26. (Paul W. Gillespie)

9. Loyola Blakefield

Coach: Anthony Zehyoue

Last season: 2-1

Outlook: After decades in the MIAA A Conference followed by a couple seasons playing an independent schedule, the Dons have found a home in the B Conference and gained valuable experience in limited action last season. Nine starters return with a handful of others getting quality time on the field. Blue-chip talents in quarterback/wide receiver Jayden Moore and Northwestern-bound defensive end/linebacker Anto Saka set the tone on each side of the ball.

10. Mervo

Coach: Patrick Nixon

Last season: DNP

Outlook: The Mustangs made back-to-back state semifinal appearances before last year’s canceled season and plan to pick up where they left off with a new nucleus. As the lone returning starter, wide receiver/safety Kylish Hicks will be leaned on to lead and make plays. Seniors Connor Hawkins and Derrick Dunn will split time at quarterback with running back Kyle Parker a constant threat out of the backfield. On defense, team speed is a strength.

11. Dunbar

Coach: Lawrence Smith

Last season: DNP

Outlook: After missing last year because of coronavirus restrictions, the Poets will be a work in progress with only one starter returning from 2019 — safety/cornerback Tyler Hood. There’s plenty of talent to build on with dynamic running back Devin Roche the focal point of an offense that also features wide receiver Donte Lee and left tackle Derrick Massey. Quarterback Jeremiah Dallas, who led the JV team to a Baltimore City title in 2019, is expected to take over the signal-calling duties.

Glenelg football coach Tim Cullen in action during a rivalry game against River Hill in 2019.
Glenelg football coach Tim Cullen in action during a rivalry game against River Hill in 2019. (Daniel Kucin Jr./Baltimore Sun Media Group)

12. Glenelg

Coach: Tim Cullen

Last season: 3-0

Outlook: Despite COVID-19 issues limiting them to three games in the spring, the Gladiators offense didn’t miss a beat, averaging a whopping 41 points per game. Senior quarterback Bisi Owens brings a game-changing dynamic with his ability to throw and run, and tight end Michael Robbins is a reliable target and sturdy blocker. The glue of a talented but largely inexperienced defense is linebacker Kia Payne.

13. Dundalk

Coach: Matt Banta

Last season: 3-1

Outlook: With 17 starters back from last year — eight on offense and nine on defense — the Owls are primed for a breakthrough in Baltimore County. Quarterback Calvin Stokes will look to connect with wideout Marcus Nicholson — the pair also solidify the team’s secondary on defense — while running back Jordan Fiorenza will handle the ground game. Dalan Johnson anchors both lines.

River Hill football players take the field for a 3A state semifinal football game against Aberdeen in 2011.
River Hill football players take the field for a 3A state semifinal football game against Aberdeen in 2011. (Brian Krista / Patuxent Publishing)

14. River Hill

Coach: Brian Van Deusen

Last season: 5-0

Outlook: With new faces in important places on offense — most notably quarterback Bergen Remick — the Hawks will start out by leaning on their fast and aggressive defense led by linebacker Daniel Fahmy and defensive lineman Tyler Windsor. In his 22nd season at the Clarksville school, Van Deusen is six wins away from 200.

15. Old Mill

Coach: Mike Pfisterer

Last season: 2-1

Outlook: Former coach Chad McCormick stepped down after 10 seasons, 90 wins and one Class 4A state championship, leaving the program in the hands of Pfisterer, who spent the past five years as an assistant at Broadneck. The Patriots, led by senior quarterback Myles Fulton, return five players on offense and six on defense with linebacker/fullback Garrett Perrotta, defensive back/wide receiver Will Ennis and wide receiver/defensive back Donte Craggette-Drake the other key contributors.

Others considered: Aberdeen (DNP), Concordia Prep (2-1), Parkville (DNP), South Carroll (4-2), Westminster (6-0)

Baltimore Sun sports editor Tim Schwartz contributed to this article.

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