GRANITEVILLE — It has been a steady rise for the football team at Midland Valley High School.


The team has improved each of the past three season. The Mustangs recovered from a one-win season in 2011 – when many freshmen were forced to play at young age – to return to the playoffs in 2012 before posting a winning record and making it back to the postseason a year ago. Now, the group that was thrown into the fire will lead an experienced and talented squad onto the field this season, where the expectations are justifiably high for Midland Valley.


2013 in review

The Mustangs were one of the most exciting teams last season but had enough struggles to keep them from making too much noise. They finished an up-and-down year with a loss to Hartsville in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs, ending up with a 6-5 record.


Their issues on defense hurt them in the early stages of the season and prevented them from notching critical wins down the stretch against region rivals Swansea and Strom Thurmond.


But Midland Valley's offense was thrilling to watch and helped to compensate for any other shortcomings. Whether it was with designed power runs, or when quarterback Daniel Carr extended plays with his great athleticism and turned a broken play into a big one, the Mustangs were capable of scoring on any snap.


Returning stars

No team in the area boasts as many returning players of as great significance as the Mustangs. They've got a two-year starting quarterback Daniel Carr, who might be the most exciting player in the area. They've got his top target, Kameron Brown, the most distinguished receiver in the area and among the top pass catchers in South Carolina. They've got workhorse running back Dré Carr, the player who moves the chains. They've got linebacker Xavier Leaphart, possibly the best athlete on the team and the area's leading tackler last season.


“They've all done great. They've all stepped up their games,” head coach Rick Knight said. “I couldn't ask for better leadership. These are great kids, period. They've bought in. … They're all vocal and coach their positions.”


Knight was emphatic in describing Leaphart as the leader of the defense. He's an intelligent player that knows where he's supposed to be as well as where his teammates are expected to line up and will put them in the right spots. He's also fast and his hits pack a punch, and he delivered 139 of them a year ago.


Daniel Carr plays quarterback like Barry Sanders, using his tremendous athleticism to escape impossible situations and extend plays – generally for special results. While he's always a threat to tuck and run – gaining 810 yards last season – Daniel Carr is a pass-first quarterback. He was second in the area last season, completing 131 of 229 passes for 1,871 yards and 20 touchdowns.


His top target, Brown, doesn't just have the prototype build (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) to be a top receiver, he's got the work ethic and football IQ to maximize his physical gifts. Last year, when he missed a game and was limited at the start of the season with a knee injury, Brown amassed 52 receptions for 807 yards and an area-best 15 touchdowns.


Dré Carr also missed time because of injuries but was the motor that made the Mustangs go when he was on the field. He finished the season with 139 carries for 828 yards and 14 touchdowns, and it wasn't a coincidence that when he had good games Midland Valley flourished.


While those players are the big stars filling out the marquee, they have a lot of teammates returning with experience as well. Among them are junior defensive linemen Mike Baynham and Skyler Curry, whom Knight paid the ultimate compliment by saying “they're mean as snakes, and they love it. They're the cornerstones of the defensive front.”


Massive Aaron Ray (6-4, 301 pounds) and Jahir Garcia (5-6, 203) are returning starters on the offensive line. Ray is charged with protecting Daniel Carr's blindside as the left tackle, and Garcia – known for his strength, toughness and sense of humor – is one of the guards.


Anthony Colden, a third-year starter, is going to help anchor the defense as a linebacker and is an emotional leader for the team. He will be joined by Kyle DeHayes at linebacker and will often aid the secondary, which will feature returning starters at corner back in Quay Madison and Adrian Bembry.


Although the Mustangs lost Trenton Baughman, an accomplished complement receiver to Brown, they have a solid core of experienced players who will look to help take pressure off their star teammate. That group includes Stephon Morency as well as Justin and AJ Mealing.


New faces

The Mustangs are such a veteran group, that many of their players have some varsity experience. But Knight pointed to a few individuals who could have even bigger roles or make more significant contributions in 2014. Among them are the younger siblings of two of Midland Valley's top stars.


Drekwon Carr, Dré's little brother and Daniel's cousin, is another player who stands out because of his tremendous athleticism. Knight compared his skills to those of a gymnastic ninja, saying the running back, “can do any flip or jump.” He also is one of the strongest players on the team, and his name is prominently featured throughout the team's weightroom.


If he can find a seam, he might not be caught, which could also be said of Skylar Brown, Kameron's younger brother. A junior safety and receiver, Brown could be an X-factor player for Midland Valley with his speed.


Although they're much slower, the roles of Jashon Felder, Noah Stone and John Cogburn will play important roles. They're expected to be the other starters on the offensive line this season, and charged with responsibility of making holes to run through, but also staying involved in plays to the very end, engaging their blocks until the whistle blows because of Daniel Carr's abilities.


Games to watch

As has been the case for the past several years, Midland Valley will open its season against area rival North Augusta. The contests haven't been close the past few meetings, but this could be the first time in a long time that the Mustangs enter the Aug. 29 game, to be played at the Jackets Nest, as the favorite. The combination of their experience and a changing of the guard at North Augusta could give Midland Valley its first win in the rivalry in a long time.


Following the season opener, the Mustangs play a non-region slate with a who's who of top area rivals, including the home opener which will serve as a renewal of their rivalry against South Aiken, an away game at former Region 5-AAA foe Strom Thurmond and a showdown with Silver Bluff in a rematch of one of last season's highest-scoring contests.


Midland Valley will go to Saluda before opening region play against Gilbert. That will be followed by a home game against Swansea, with the winner likely having the inside track toward capturing the region championship. The Mustangs will close out the regular season with games against Brookland-Cayce, Airport and Aiken – a new arrival to Class AAA.


Offense

Midland Valley will continue to operate its spread offense out of the shotgun formation, creating good space for its playmakers to operate.


“We've always got the chance to make another play,” Knight said of his talented skill position players, citing improvement from Daniel Carr, who he said he wouldn't trade for any other quarterback in the Palmetto State. “Daniel's arm strength has increased. It helps when you've got a kid who can extend plays when things break down.”


Knight reiterated that the Mustangs will try to emphasize the running game as much as possible. He said brothers Dré and Drekwon will be the top backs, with Colden seeing limited action as a change-of-pace runner. Colden could do more on offense but is so important at linebacker that Knight doesn't want to wear him out.


But depth, especially proven depth, at running back is important. Dré Carr's injuries in the past two seasons have prevented him from playing in the Mustangs' final games. So spreading around the carries should keep him fresher down the stretch and have his reserves ready to execute.


Defense

Just like the offense, the primary defensive formation will be the same as what has worked well under Knight. The Mustangs will operate out of a 3-5 scheme, and have a lot of depth along the defensive line. In addition to Baynham and Curry, Knight is high on the abilities of Ricky Marquez and Morgan Randall operating in roles inside and outside respectively.


“We're going to do the same things,” Knight said, adding he'll stunt among other options to create pressure and turnovers. “We're not dominant individually, so we've got to force other teams to make mistakes. We've got to have enough people coming from different directions.


“Last year we didn't create enough turnovers. The ball has to be ours. It seemed like one play a series would kill us, and we would not get off the field. We've got to do better in critical downs.”


Special Teams

The kicking game doesn't figure to be an area of strength for the Mustangs. They have experienced kickers, as well as some newcomers who have shown ability. But the priority will be in sound execution, not superlative plays.


Last season, Ben Padgett and Jaquan McCorkle shared the kicking duties – with Padgett serving as place kicker and punter before giving way to McCorkle because of a shoulder injury. Both are back this season, and it looks like Padgett will return as the place kicker and McCorkle the punter. But both have competition.


Thomas McCord is a transplant from the soccer team and will share duties on kickoffs, extra points and field goals with Padgett. McCorkle, who Knight said has a “thunder leg,” will have to beat out Matt Fick as the primary punter. The kickers that are most consistent and help the Mustangs score points and win the battle for field position will see the most action. That's the same philosophy Knight's following in the return game. Leaphart, the star linebacker, is the top punt returner on the team because of his outstanding ability to field the ball.


“He catches everything, one handed, two handed, he's the most sure-handed guy we've got,” Knight said of Leaphart, who could be one of the deep men fielding kickoff returns. He'll share that role with Mealing, Morency, Dre Carr and Drekwon Carr.


That's the one aspect of special teams that could be a big plus for Midland Valley, as it should have potential to break off big returns and put itself in good field position on most occasions.


Overall outlook

This is the year for the Mustangs. They've been building to this point for several seasons. They're poised for something special and have the opportunity to achieve it with so many other area teams and region rivals undergoing significant turnover – be it on the roster or the coaching staff.


“We're ready to take the next step, but there's so much luck involved. A lot of things have to go our way,” Knight said of questions that will need to be answered in a positive manner. “We can take the next step if we can make the big plays again. If we can stay healthy. If we can make the big stops on defense. That's a lot of big 'ol ifs.


“We have a talented bunch of playmakers, but it takes 11 on each side of the ball. We have high expectations. We've talked about it in the offseason – we're close.”


If the Mustangs can deal with the mantle of expectation, play with a bull's-eye on their back and stay relatively healthy, this should be a special year in the Valley.


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


2013 RESULTS


• vs. North Augusta 43-6 Loss


• at Allendale-Fairfax 38-32 Win


• vs. Aiken 42-35 Win


• at Silver Bluff 53-33 Loss


• vs. Baptist Hill 35-0 Win


• at Gilbert 35-28 Win


• at Swansea 47-42 Loss


• vs. Brookland-Cayce 35-24 Win


• at Airport 19-14 Win


• vs. Strom Thurmond 34-27 Loss


• at Hartsville 24-0 Loss*


* Class AAA playoffs


2014 SCHEDULE


All games at 7:30 p.m.


• Aug. 29 at North Augusta


• Sept. 5 vs. South Aiken


• Sept. 12 at Strom Thurmond


• Sept. 19 vs. Silver Bluff


• Sept. 26 at Saluda


• Oct. 3 vs. Gilbert^


• Oct. 10 vs. Swansea^


• Oct. 17 at Broookland-Cayce^


• Oct. 24 vs. Airport^


• Oct. 31 at Aiken^


^ - Region 5-AAA game


PREVIEW SCHEDULE


• Aug. 4 North Augusta


• Aug. 5 Strom Thurmond


• Aug. 6 Fox Creek


• Aug. 7 South Aiken


• Aug. 8 Williston-Elko


• Aug. 9 Wagener-Salley


• Aug. 11 Silver Bluff


• Aug. 12 Aiken


• Aug. 13 Ridge Spring-Monetta


• Today Midland Valley