For the second season in a row, the Smyrna Eagles will enter the football season with a target squarely on their backs as the two-time defending Division I state champions.
In 2016, the Eagles dominated the state, posting a perfect 10-0 record during the regular season before a 48-0 win over William Penn in the Division I semi-finals and a 36-14 win over Middletown in the Division I state title game.
Over the past two seasons, Smyrna is 19-1 during the regular season and a perfect 5-0 in the postseason, with a 22-game winning streak still intact for the start of the 2017 campaign.
During both title runs, Smyrna put an electric offense on the field paired with an ever improving defense. In 25 games over two seasons, Smyrna has outscored their opponents 1,300-413, topping 600 total points each season, while lowering their points allowed last season to under 200.
This Eagles look to become the first school since Newark High to three-peat as state champs. Newark went on to win five titles in a row from 1997-2001.
However, like any season there are changes on both ends of the ball.
While they lost some players after their first title run two seasons ago, the majority of the core was intact for last year’s title run. This year, however, Smyrna will see some changes at many skill positions. But this year’s Smyrna team isn’t without championship experience, making the upcoming campaign that much more interesting.
The Eagles must replace several players on both ends of the ball who were integral to their success over the past two seasons.
On offense, they’ll be without University of Delaware commit and 2016 Player of the Year in quarterback Nolan Henderson.
Smyrna will also be without All-State lineman Jerren Carter who helped keep Henderson’s jersey clean as a four-year starter.
Smyrna’s backfield also took a blow as junior Leddie Brown transferred to another high school. Brown was also the top kick and punt returner for the Eagles.
Defensively, Smyrna had to part ways with a number of standout graduates, including Jamier Smith on the defensive line, linebackers Elijah and Josh Hutchinson, along with Jake Kaiser and Jacob Soroko in the secondary.
While the Eagles will be without a lot of the talent that helped raise two-straight state title trophies, they return a large group of experienced players.
Smyrna’s offense will again be led by 2015 Player of the Year, running back Will Knight, who has already committed to the University of Delaware.
Joining Knight are offensive returnees Emon Roberts, Stephen Whaley, Marcus Vass and Ron Jackson at wideout.
On the offensive line, Smyrna lost a key player in Carter, but should return the majority of that group.
Smyrna’s defense, which made positive strides forward last season, brings back a number of players who saw the field a season ago.
On the line, Anthony Del Re, Hunter Moyer and Mike Carrow return, as do linebackers Paul Bailey, JaiRae Hammond and Diron Accoo, along with Larsen Wilson, Caden Naylor, John Quinones and Jeremy D’Aguilar in the secondary.
Smyrna also has its share of newcomers, who according to Head Coach Mike Judy, are doing a nice job of growing together with the team’s returning players.
“The new faces have gotten into a groove with our returning core group and practice has been very productive this preseason,” Judy said. “It’s very apparent that the graduated seniors have left a great blueprint for success and this team is following it.”
Quarterback is new, but experienced
Now that Henderson has graduated, a new face is stepping into the quarterback roll, Isaiah Wilson, a transfer from Glasgow. Wilson, a tall and athletic QB with a big arm, played three seasons with the Dragons and now looks to make an impact with the Eagles.
In 2016 he helped lead Glasgow to a 10-0 regular season, but the Dragons lost in the first round of the Division II playoffs to Caravel Academy, 21-16,
“Isaiah has done a great job embracing his new school and football family,” Judy said. “I’ve been very impressed with his demeanor, work ethic and willingness to learn. He’s earned the respect of his teammates and our staff. We feel that he will continue to shine as the season continues.”
Knight focal point in backfield again
While Will Knight didn’t take a backseat to Leddie Brown in the backfield last season, the talent of both assured that the players shared the ball.
Now that Brown has transferred, Knight enters his senior campaign as the undisputed leader of the backfield.
After a tremendous sophomore campaign that saw Knight do a little bit of everything, even stepping in a QB in a comeback win over William Penn in the playoffs, he was rightfully named the Delaware Offensive Player of the Year.
Now, heading into his final season in an Eagles’ uniform, Coach Judy believes the best is yet to come for the game-breaking running back.
“Will has continued to grow as a young man and player, and his dynamic nature makes him an explosive threat whenever he is on the field,” said Judy. “He’ll continue to be the centerpiece of the offense and I fully expect him to have another great season.”
New teams on the schedule
Smyrna will open their regular season against the same team they closed out the season against last year, the Middletown Cavaliers, in a rematch of the 2016 title game.
While the game will no doubt be a test for the Eagles, it also signals the rebirth of the Harvest Bowl and the first time Smyrna has played the Cavaliers in the regular season in many years.
After their matchup against Middletown, Smyrna will face two stiff test against out-of-state schools. First, they’ll host Franklin High School from Maryland, before taking on Irvington High School from New Jersey the following week.
Smyrna will then embark on their always tough Henlopen Conference schedule where they’ll take on the likes of Cape Henlopen, Sussex Central and Sussex Tech, with road dates against Caesar Rodney, Dover and Polytech.
In between their conference schedule, Smyrna will travel upstate to Baynard Stadium where they’ll face-off against perennial contender Salesianum, the team the Eagles defeated for their first football state title in 2015.