Several future collegians adept at their roles when the football is in the air likely will be in the spotlight when Gahanna Lincoln High School plays host to Pickerington Central on Friday, Sept. 29.
The Lions have one of central Ohio’s top passing games with junior quarterback Mike Lowery and senior wide receivers Jerome Buckner and David Miller leading the way.
On the flip side, there might not be a deeper or more experienced secondary in the area than the one the Tigers possess with seniors Xavier Henderson, Jalen Mitchell and Jeremiah Wood and junior Terry Simuel.
It’s an appropriate matchup for the opening week of play in the OCC-Ohio Division, which features four teams with 4-1 records, including both Gahanna and Central.
“It’s going to be exciting because we’re starting to play in our league,” Wood said. “It’s going to be a fun time.”
Wood, who has scholarship offers from 14 colleges, including Kentucky, Iowa State, Cincinnati and most of the Mid-American Conference, lines up at strong safety and occasionally outside linebacker.
Henderson, who was the Division I district Defensive Player of the Year last season, has committed to Michigan State and returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 41-7 win over Upper Arlington on Sept. 22. He typically splits time between free safety and cornerback.
Senior Jalen Mitchell has received interest from Army and Brown and has spent most of his time at cornerback since Central’s 20-18 victory over the Lions in Week 6 last season.
The Tigers have enough talent up front on defense with senior Grant Meek and junior DeWayne Carter on the line and senior Grey Brancifort at linebacker to help take the pressure off their secondary.
In last year’s matchup, Lowery completed 31 of 54 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns and Miller had nine receptions for 104 yards.
The Tigers limited the Lions to 3 yards rushing a year ago, but Gahanna’s ground game is much improved this season with junior Justus Harris rushing for 610 yards and eight touchdowns.
Lowery is 97-for-155 passing for 1,055 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions and Miller has 34 catches for 498 yards and four touchdowns.
Buckner, a transfer from Columbus Academy who has offers from 11 schools, including Air Force, Navy and four MAC programs, has 40 catches for 382 yards and seven touchdowns.
In a 34-32 victory over Dublin Coffman on Sept. 22, Lowery was 24-for-38 passing for 268 yards and three touchdowns, Harris rushed for 104 yards and two scores and Buckner had 136 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions.
Both teams endured their only losses Sept. 8, with Central falling to Trotwood-Madison 28-19 and Gahanna losing to Cincinnati Elder 27-23. Elder is 3-2 but has made five consecutive Division I playoff appearances, while Trotwood-Madison is 5-0 and was the Division III state runner-up last season.
“After the Elder game, our offense started to pick up, especially with David Miller in (yards after catch),” Lowery said.
Gahanna went 1-4 in the OCC-Ohio last season to finish fifth, while Central went 5-0 to win at least a share of its 11th consecutive league title.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Mitchell said. “We haven’t gone against (Buckner) yet, but I guarded Miller a little bit last year and he’s a good athlete. We’ve got to stay sharp.”
Against Coffman, the Lions led 28-17 heading into the fourth quarter, fell behind 32-28 with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining but scored the winning points on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Lowery to Buckner with 1:31 left.
Junior linebacker David Williams had 10 tackles, senior defensive back Tim Turlington had 5.5 tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss and senior lineman Jonathan Harrington and junior lineman Karter Johnson both had one tackle for loss.
Gahanna’s defense, however, allowed 342 total yards.
The Lions’ secondary is led by senior Cameren Carlisle and junior LaCarr Trent, who have two and one interceptions, respectively, and more than 20 tackles on the season apiece.
Two of Central’s top skill position players are in their first seasons in key roles.
Sophomore quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw is 43-for-74 passing for 672 yards with two touchdowns and has rushed for 313 yards and four scores. Junior running back Jamir Jackson has 366 yards and nine touchdowns on 62 carries.
Also for the Tigers, Wood has two touchdowns rushing, senior tight end Trenton Gillison and Simuel at wide receiver both have seven receptions and senior wide receiver Tristan Peppers has six catches for a team-best 152 yards.
“(Competing in) the league is huge, but we have got to get better,” Lions coach Bruce Ward said. “We have to play smarter, especially next week. Everyone has to play together if we’re going to do well.”