If you have ever wanted to see first-graders play football in the spread formation and take shotgun snaps, drive up to Duncan. Everyone’s a Rebel there.
“Byrnes football is kind of hated, because we win,” said Johnny Owens, who is director of the youth program. “I could see how some people would think we have a football factory, but it’s a kid factory.”
The Rebels are 11-time state champions amid a fertile recruiting ground for college coaches. Dutch Fork (10-3) travels to Byrnes (12-1) Friday night for the semifinals of the Class 4A Division I playoffs.
“We don’t have a bunch of huge players,” Byrnes coach Bobby Bentley said. “We’re not a big football team. You can’t really judge us by our size. It’s mainly how we play the game.”
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The secret to the Rebels’ play might be a youth football program that works with the Byrnes coaching staff to teach football fundamentals and general plays and formations. The District 5 Sports and Activities Council encompasses all of the elementary schools that funnel into Byrnes High, with kids eligible to play in the program from first through sixth grade. Every team has the same mascot as Byrnes, the Rebels, and wears the same blue and red school colors.
The goal is for kids to learn football, have fun and stick with it until they get to middle school and high school to play on the schools’ organized level, Owens said. The result is kids who have been coached to Bentley’s specifications since they were old enough to hold a football.
“Don’t get me wrong, our youth league plays a huge part in our program,” Owens said. “When people ask if it carries over to Friday night, I hope so, but there’s so much more coaching and development they have to get from seventh grade up. There are a lot of other variables.”
The youth football program began in 1998. Many current Byrnes players have been brought up in this system, including quarterback Shuler Bentley. He has passed for 69 touchdowns this season with more than 4,700 yards. He completes 70 percent of his passes.
First- and second-graders will know the basic lingo and formations the varsity team might use, and they play 7-on-7 with the quarterback taking snaps out of the shotgun. The Rebels youth teams only play themselves because their teams place most of the emphasis on offense with no blitzing, so Owens doesn’t want to disrupt that continuity by playing teams from other youth leagues.
The Byrnes varsity and JV staff work with the youth program in the spring and summer, and the teams all use the same drills. Bentley picked the five base formations the youth program’s teams use. Future varsity starters grow up playing together, potentially developing chemistry early, as was the case with Shuler Bentley and star wide receiver Shaedon Meadors. They have connected on 32 touchdowns this season.
Bentley’s differentiation of speed and agility is instilled at an early age.
“We think there’s a difference between speed training and agility training,” Bentley said. “We don’t just have a running program. We don’t just go out and run. We actually do agility and quickness training.”
Former USC running back Marcus Lattimore was a Byrnes Rebel, as was current Gamecock wide receiver Nick Jones. Shuler Bentley is committed to Old Dominion, and wide receiver Tavin Richardson has offers from Arkansas, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami and Pitt. This year’s team is No. 16 in the USA Today national rankings, behind No. 13 Northwestern.
Owens said the priority has always been making sure the kids have fun, with positive influences. He doesn’t think the program is that special, yet other areas in the Upstate have called him to ask how he runs it so they can implement the same thing.