Hammond’s grand plan to utilize versatile senior D’Andre Lee-Smith this season at defensive end lasted all of three quarters.
“We were inexperienced in the line at the start of the season, and with all the passing teams that we were going to face, we felt D’Andre would give us a pass rush we thought we needed,” explained defensive coordinator Craig Fransworth.
“But it didn’t take long for us to realize that it wasn’t working. D’Andre’s biggest strengths are his versatility and his ability to make plays in space. At linebacker, we can move him around and keep defenses guessing where he is lined up. At defensive end, he was easier to find and, basically, was limited to one side of the field.”
Lee-Smith was back behind the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter against Ben Lippen, helping the Skyhawks pull out a 38-35 win.
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Over the next 11 games, Hammond’s revamped defense has allowed an average of 12.9 points per game, with the pinnacle performance being in last week’s 28-14 SCISA Class 3A semifinal win against Ben Lippen.
“I just feel more comfortable standing up and making the reads at linebacker,” Lee-Smith said. “Ben Lippen exposed some bald spots, and coach Farnsworth adjusted quickly. He does a great job of putting us in the best positions to help the team.”
Entering Saturday’s championship game against Laurence Manning Academy at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium at 7:30 p.m., Lee-Smith has 72 tackles, 12 tackles for loss.
A total of 18 players have had starting roles on defense to date, but Lee-Smith and transfer senior linebacker Davis Bland are the clear standouts.
Bland, who previously played at Heathwood Hall, has been the rock-solid man in the middle of the Skyhawks’ base 3-4 defense. He leads the team in tackles (130), sacks (5) and forced fumbles (4).
“Davis is very intelligent and always seems to be around the ball,” Farnsworth said. “He’s been a great addition.”
Hammond (12-0) has made it to the SCISA finale for nine consecutive years, but the Skyhawks have suffered back-to-back seven-point losses after winning six titles in a row (2006-11).
“I dressed as a freshman when we won our last championship, and I know what it feels like to come up short,” Lee-Smith said. “None of us wants to finish up like that again.”
LMA (11-2) is enjoying its best showing since the 1997 SCISA championship season.
The Swampcats, coached by former Manning mentor Robbie Briggs and led by running back Tyshawn Epps, leads the league in points for (486) and points against (132).
Hammond, however, hammered LMA 37-7 in the regular season meeting.
“That won’t happen again,” Farnsworth said. “We took advantage of some mistakes and led 20-0 at the end of the first quarter, and things snowballed on them. We can’t expect an easy game.”