Preview: Tonight – DeMatha faces national powerhouse, St. Thomas Aquinas

Two traditional football powers square off Saturday as DeMatha opens season against St. Thomas Aquinas on national TV

The DeMatha football team begins the 2018 season at No. 7 St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Stags are looking to rebound from last year's 6-5 record. Photo courtesy of DeMatha Catholic High School

By CHRIS McMANES — The DeMatha football camp, golf tournament and coaches clinic are over. Ditto preseason practice. The Stags begin their quest to return to the top of the local football heap tonight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

DeMatha will for the second-straight year open its season playing on the home field of a national power. St. Thomas Aquinas, ranked 7th in the nation by USA Today, will host the Stags at 7 p.m.

The contest between two of the most accomplished Catholic high schools in the nation is part of the ESPN GEICO High School Football Kickoff. ESPN2 will carry the game live.

DeMatha, coming off an uncharacteristic 6-5 season, will face a Raiders team that finished 12-3 a year ago and advanced to the Florida 7A state semifinals. STA had won the previous three state championships. The Stags entered 2017 winners of four consecutive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles.

“It will definitely be a battle,” DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks said. “They have a lot of athletes with great size all over the field who can run. And they’re well coached.”

STA counts among its football alumni Phillip Dorsett and James White (New England Patriots); Giovanni Bernard (Cincinnati Bengals); and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin (Dallas Cowboys).

The Raiders play in Brian Piccolo Memorial Stadium, named in honor of the former STA and Chicago Bears star who inspired the movie, Brian’s Song.

“Aquinas has produced top teams year after year,” Brooks said. “I don’t think this will be any different. We have a big challenge ahead of us.”

The Stags also check in with an accomplished football tradition. Alumnus Rodney McLeod helped the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl in February. Ja’Whaun Bentley looks like he’s going to earn a roster spot with New England.

Josh Wilson ended his NFL career three years ago. He shares his alma mater’s co-defensive coordinator role with William Weathers.

“It’s going to be a fantastic game between two great programs,” Brooks said.

DeMatha is talented on both sides of the ball and on special teams. The strongest unit figures to be its defensive backs. DeMarcco Hellams, who has verbally committed to reigning national champion Alabama, roams the secondary with Dominic Logan-Nealy, Josh Wallace and expected Florida State signee Nick Cross.

“Those guys are all seniors,” Brooks said. “They’re a veteran group who really work well together. They communicate well. They forced turnovers in the preseason. They’ve done a great job in coverage, rallying to the ball.

“So, while we have a lot of units producing, I think they’ve performed the best thus far.”

The Stags are also strong at linebacker and on the defensive line.

“Our linebacker play has been phenomenal with sophomore transfer Greg Penn, who’s really making all the calls and audibles for our defense,” Brooks said. “He runs well sideline to sideline. We have a great group of linebackers …”

Junior running back Marshawn Lloyd, who missed nearly all last season with a broken arm, has several major Division I teams vying for his services.

“He’s much improved,” Brooks said. “He’s puts on 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, and he’s running well between the tackles and catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s had a great preseason.”

Brooks is looking for more consistency out of his quarterbacks. Eric Najarian, who started most of the second half of the season last year, gets the nod against the Raiders.

“We really need him to play well for us to be successful,” Brooks said of his 6-foot-4 senior signal caller. “He’s done a good job thus far. Saturday will be a huge challenge for him.

“We’re hoping that he gets in rhythm and makes important throws and does a great job managing the team. I think if he does that, with the pieces we have around him, we’ll be successful.”

National games – DeMatha opened the 2015 season with a pair of victories against reigning Florida state champions. The Stags defeated visiting Miami Central, 38-14. They followed the next week with a 23-22 win at American Heritage in Plantation, Fla. DeMatha lost its 2017 curtain raiser to Bishop Gorman, 35-23, in Las Vegas

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha football for the Hyattsville Life & Times.

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