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January 30, 2011

Dunbar's Big Three ignite one big, bad defense

Baltimore City was eerily quiet this early on a Saturday morning. The constant stream of sirens, car horns and back-and-forth street banter had yet to settle in. But in the hub of East Baltimore, three underclassmen athletes were eager for the day to begin. It was December 4th, 2010 - and their Dunbar Poets had a championship to win.

The first in the trio was the team's star player. Though just a junior, safety Deontay McManus was a three-year varsity starter who had established himself as a team leader. The 6-foot, 209-pound phenom, who had already garnered multiple Division-I scholarship offers, fidgeted in anticipation.


He pulled on his gear, kissed his mother on the cheek, told her he loved her and was off to Orleans Street and Dunbar High. After arriving, McManus grabbed his customary glazed donut from Dunkin' Donuts, stuck a pair of iPod buds in his ear and lost himself in the beats of rapper Lil' Boosie's "Mind of a Maniac."

A few miles away, Ernest Hawkins, one of Dunbar's starting outside linebackers, sat quietly in his room. Hawkins had been in this position once before; he had played the previous year for a Joppatowne team that lost in the championship game to Catoctin. After the season, however, Hawkins transferred to Dunbar. He knew the Poets would afford him the opportunity to avenge that painful defeat.

Even though Hawkins had already played in a championship game, the butterflies still welled up in his stomach. So the 6-2, 210-pounder closed his eyes and prayed to Allah. This time, he asked, let the outcome be different.

A decidedly different scene played out at Lavar Highsmith's home. Dunbar's defensive end-outside linebacker hybrid covered up any anxieties with a permanent smile that suggested perpetual optimism and exuberance. Like McManus, this 5-10, 210-pound boulder -- whose bulging forearms have earned him the nickname "Debo" -- preferred his music loud and his donuts glazed. By the time he arrived at school, Highsmith had already worked himself into a lather, ready to roar into battle.

An hour or so after the Big Three met their teammates at Dunbar a bus arrived to shuttle the Poets over to the Baltimore Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium, host of the championship game. No one said a word - not even Highsmith. The Poets thrust on their helmets, lowered their heads and entered "the zone."

Ten minutes later, the bus pulled into a side lot and the players quietly marched into the locker room beneath the stadium. The only sound was the rhythmic "click-clacking" of cleats on concrete.

As game-time neared a Dunbar coach lowered the lights, save for a small lamp that illuminated a picture of Ben Eaton, the legendary Poets coach who died in 2007.
Another assistant turned on a small CD player. The ghostlike beats of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" trickled out, captivating the players like a movie buff taking in a Hitchcock film.

Suddenly, the song's tempo picked up. The drummer unleashed a powerful double-bass beat, igniting the attentive Dunbar team. Someone flipped on the lights as the players rose as one unit, hooting and hollering like blood-lusting barbarians.

It was time. The Dunbar Poets, led by their defensive stalwarts, were ready for war.

"When we go into battle, we come out to absolutely destroy you," McManus said. "We take defense personally. No one is going to run on us, pass on us, nothing. If you get two yards, we're offended.

"Our defense is nothing to play with. It's like fire -- get too close and someone is going to get hurt."


***


Dunbar has always had a strong defensive tradition. Under coordinator Anderson Powell, who scripted the defense for 13 years, the Poets never averaged more than two touchdowns allowed per game.

But last year former Bowie State coach Michael Carter stepped in for the retired Powell. The defense took its game up a notch. With a brand new 4-2-5 scheme predicated on speed, gap assignments and multiple line shifts, Dunbar allowed just 6.3 points per game.

"What we wanted to do was cause havoc with out speed and confuse teams with our defensive fronts," Carter said. "We wanted to let them loose."

Let loose indeed. Like a pack of angry bulldogs, the Poets ravaged their opponents in 2010. They recorded 62 sacks, picked off 30 passes and posted an astounding seven shutouts, which ranked second in the state. Over one six-game stretch, Dunbar went 28 consecutive quarters without giving up a single point.

"You here about these unselfish, gap-control defenses and how successful they are," McManus said. "Well, I'm here to tell you we ain't that. We're greedy. We want the ball, we want the turnover, and we want to shut you out."

Here's the scary part for opponents: Dunbar will be back next year. The defense returns seven of 11 starters, including the three linchpins, McManus, Highsmith and Hawkins.

"They are going to be the cornerstone of what we do," Carter said. "They've been here for a year, so we're looking for more leadership from them. They're going to show the guys how to play fast and physical."

McManus, who Carter calls the "quarterback of the defense," is the epitome of fast and physical. A human missile who hits like Ronnie Lott and preys like Ed Reed, McManus literally has an impact on every play. Last year he picked off four passes and racked up close to 40 solo tackles, even though he lined up well off the line of scrimmage.

"He's a ballhwak safety," Hawkins said. "When that ball's in the air, you know No. 4 is around it and he's going to pick it. And on run plays he comes up in those trenches and brings the pain. I mean, he can bring it."

Last year, in a 22-0 drubbing of a Poly team averaging over 30 points per game, McManus shut the door with a backbreaking fourth-quarter pick six. With the Engineers driving, McManus leaped over Poly's No. 1 receiver, Donovan Riley, snagged the interception, kept his balance and dashed straight up the sideline. When he crossed the goal line 75 yards downfield, McManus flipped the ball away and stared into the crowd.

"I don't need to say a word," McManus said. "I just look into the crowd at our great fans. They come to see a show, and it's our job to perform for them. That's what we are - performers."

Highsmith may be the most eccentric performer on the Dunbar defense. The man-child quarterback killer had a team-high 15 sacks last year, giving him ample opportunities to refine his signature shake-and-shimmy sack dance.

In a crucial rivalry game with City College, Highsmith had plenty of reasons to dance after he came through with a momentum-killing strip-sack. Dunbar was leading 14-6 in the fourth quarter, but City had the ball inside the Poets' 10-yard line.


Carter called "okie-Y-monster-green", also known as a Highsmith blitz off the edge. At the snap, "Depo" motored by the right tackle, fired into the backfield and leveled the quarterback. The ball popped loose and a Dunbar defender recovered, effectively ending the City comeback.

"I'm the 'monster' in the play," Highsmith said. "I cause problems. I bring havoc."

"There's a reason his nickname is Depo," Hawkins said. "He's a bully on that field; he's unstoppable. You tell him, 'Meet me in the backfield,' and he's there 11 times out of 10. He never backs down. He's an animal."

In many ways, Hawkins is the polar opposite of his fellow linebacker. Although he did have 12 sacks and will break out an occasional exuberant dance (three claps and an arm pump), he's not the guy who leads the Dunbar charge, shows off for the crowd or makes the flashy play. Rather, Hawkins' game is understated, much like his personality. But he's brilliant in a way only football purists can appreciate.

"I didn't know anything about Ernest when he came here from Joppatowne," Highsmith said. "But I found out that he's got heart and potential. With that, you can go a long way.

"He's a smart player and probably the most cerebral guy on the defense," Highsmith continued. "He avoids traps from blockers, moves up and down the line and he's always in position to make a play. He's an excellent tackler and he's very disciplined."

Witness the Dunbar-Edmondson game when the Red Storm were fighting for a playoff spot. Dunbar was leading by two touchdowns, but Edmondson had the ball at the Poets' 1 early in the fourth quarter. It was fourth-and-1 and running back Steve Everett took an off-tackle handoff before bouncing outside. Everett had just one man to beat to the goal line. He came up short.

"Ernest just came up and made the play - nothing flashy," Carter said. "He's the unsung hero of our defense."

McManus, Hawkins and Highsmith showed awesome talent - all three are projected to be Division-I players - but they also benefitted from Carter's new scheme. Under Powell, the previous coordinator, Dunbar ran a basic 4-4 gap-control defense with four big space-eaters up front, four disciplined linebackers at the next level and three secondary men in back.

Carter's 4-2-5 is still predicated on reading gaps, but he replaced the beef with gazelles. Gone are the space eaters up front; in their place are four down linemen who can all run sub-4.6 40-yard dashes. Gone are two slow-footed linebackers; in their place are two extra defensive backs who can fly to the football.

"What makes this defense work is there are athletes all over the field," Highsmith said. "We have a lot of schemes that take advantage of our speed. We're always bringing pressure."

That said, Carter estimates it took about four weeks for the players to settle into the scheme. In Week 2, the Poets gave up 32 points in their only loss to Patterson, which is 14 more than they allowed in the other nine regular season games combined.

But after the early-season hiccup, Dunbar turned it on. They embarked on that remarkable six-game shutout streak and allowed just 38 total points the rest of the year.


"[The defense] is basically the thing that makes this engine move," Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith told the Baltimore Sun. "In all my years here, going back to Coach [Ben] Eaton, we [would never defer on the opening coin flip]. We would want the ball in the first half. Now we want to get the defense on the field first and set the tone of the game."

It'll be more of the same next season. With the Big Three leading a defense that has more than half their starters returning, Dunbar is eyeing up the record books in 2011.

"What did we have, seven shutouts last year?" asked Hawkins. "Next year, we're going for an entire season's worth. We're talking 14 straight. Our defense can't be beaten."

***


On a cold December afternoon in Baltimore, the Dunbar Poets stormed out of the M&T Bank Stadium tunnel to meet the Havre de Grace Warriors in a battle for the class 1A championship.

Havre de Grace scored early behind the arm of their quarterback, giving them a glimmer of hope. But the Dunbar defense refused to panic. The defensive backs began pressing the Warriors' receivers, the linemen began switching fronts like a chameleon changing colors and the linebackers fired in from an array of angles.

Havre de Grace didn't stand a chance.

With the outcome all but decided, Deontay McManus turned to the stands and pointed at the Dunbar fans. His team full of performers had just put on one heck of an encore.

For the Poets, this show had a happy ending: they walked away as champions for the seventh time in school history.

"This defense does not back down," McManus said. "We go down two touchdowns in the championship game, and that had never happened to us before. So what did we do? We came out strong and hit them in the mouth.

"We proved to everyone out there that we are still a championship program. And mark my words, we will always be a championship program."


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