Kickoff 2017: First Baptist Returns Primed for State Title Defense      


By Frankie Mansfield

First Baptist running back Michel Dukes accounted for more than 2,200 yards as s sophomore last season.

First Baptist's ascension from budding upstart to defending state champion was swift.  Ahead of schedule even.  The quick adjustment though is one that Hurricanes head coach Johnny Waters has been happy to make.  The reigning SCISA AA champions return this season stockpiled with talent, brimming with confidence and seemingly primed to defend their throne.  "We don't care about flying under the radar anymore," Waters said. "We're here now.  We don't shy away from that.  We went from not winning anything to hoping we don't get slaughtered to now expecting to win every time we step on the field."  It's easy to have confidence in players like junior running back Michel Dukes.  The 200-pound all-state back led the Lowcountry in rushing last season, piling up more than 2,200 total yards and 40 touchdowns.  Dukes returns bigger, faster and more polished this season after splitting his summer between AAU basketball and college football recruiting camps.  He showed off impressive hands and ball skills during this summer's passing league competitions.  "We're confident in ourselves but we're also remaining humble because we know it's going to be a little tougher repeating as state champions," Dukes said.  "I think we've improved tremendously though.  Everyone has been focused and locked in, staying after practice to get extra work in, just the little things."

First Baptist quarterback Tremez Brown fires a pass during a summer seven-on-seven competition.

Dukes should give incoming transfer quarterback Tremez Brown ample time to develop.  The junior spent the past two years at Fort Dorchester mimicking South Carolina commit Dakereon Joyner from the sideline.  While slightly smaller than his all-state senior mentor, Brown provides a new dimension of dual-threat  mobility behind center that in the past has allowed Waters' offenses to flourish.  "I learned a lot from (Joyner) in practice and during the games.  Our relationship was and still is great," Brown said. "My strength is reading the defensive ends on run plays and faking it to (Dukes) and pulling it.  That's going to be a big difference.  I didn't see a lot of that last year with this team." 

Brown helped First Baptist to the semifinals of South Carolina's 32-team seven-on-seven competition this summer.  Waters has worked to develop his still raw footwork and mechanics but says his accuracy is already there.  Any play can now be a potentially deadly run-pass option with Brown and Dukes coming out of the backfield.  Brown is an intriguing new weapon for an offense that put up 45 points per game last season.  "It's a lot of pressure taking over at quarterback for the defending state champions but I'm ready for it,' Brown said.  "They have high hopes for me and I'm glad they do because I know I'm not going to let them down."

Senior middle linebacker Timmy Campbell returns after logging 146 tackles last season for a defense that surrendered just 15 points per outing.  At 220 pounds, he has all the physical tools but it's what he does off the field that impresses Water's most.  "He's one of the best linebackers in the Lowcountry, period," Waters said. "He studies the game different from everyone else.  He watches hours and hours of film so he already knows a team's tendencies.  He knows what's coming before it happens.  Junior outside linebacker Jackson Watson put on 30 pounds this offseason and has begun to garner college interest.  He'll operate opposite senior Mark White who's moved from the defensive line to outside linebacker.

First Baptist is now as deep as it's ever been.  Smaller private schools typically rely on two-way players but Waters says the Hurricanes no longer have to. The coaching staff is equally as talented.  Former James Island head coach Randy Hilyer has been added as defensive coordinator; former Citadel standout Chris Billingslea will work with the defensive line; and former North Charleston head coach Jimmy Brown is coaching wide receivers.  "We're really fortunate in that we have an outstanding staff and zero egos.  That's rare." Water said.  "Private school football is becoming so much more competitive and we're preparing our kids as best we can."

First Baptist will once again open its season a week early, Aug. 12 against Escambia Academy (Ala.) in the Southeastern Commission of Independent Schools Kickoff Classic, an eight-team showcase at the 21,000-seat Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.  Escambia dealt First Baptist a 23-point loss last season.  The Hurricanes believe a lot has changed in a year and anxiously await the opportunity to prove it.  "We're a lot different team than we were just a year ago," Waters said. "We have that confidence that wasn't always there.  Now we know we can win, we expect it.  That's been a big change around here."

First Baptist coach Johnny Waters in his fourth season with the Hurricanes.