Every year Cleveland High School head coach Scott Riley host a combine for rising ninth graders, putting the soon to be freshmen through a series of test to see where they stand athletically.
Riley remembers putting a particular group through the paces two years ago and when he got back to his office telling his assistant coaches “guys if we don’t screw this up we can win a state championship with this group right here.”
So far the they haven’t screwed it up, as the Rams are on the brink of their first state championship appearance. Cleveland (12-2) travels to Southeast Guilford (13-1) for the 3AA Eastern Regional on Friday. Led by junior quarterback Darius Ocean, Cleveland’s wide open offense, or basketball on grass, as one fan described it, has been lighting it up all season.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships, but it’s the high-octane Rams’ offense that’s stolen the show this year.
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OCEAN LEADING THE WAY
A lot of the success of the offense is built on the arm of Ocean, who started as a sophomore, but really put it all together this season. When he first handed Ocean the keys to the offense, Riley let him know things were bit simpler on junior varsity, and that he would have to step up his game on Friday nights. Two years in the system and things are coming a lot easier to Ocean with experience.
The 6-0, 187 pound junior has put up video game numbers, throwing for 3,525 yards and 34 touchdowns this season.
“Now that he’s two years in it,” Riley said, “he’s got it all down.”
The Cleveland spread, like many football teams these days, doesn’t require a huddle. Ocean and his teammates look to the sideline for the play call, but he is responsible for all the reads. If it’s a run play, Ocean reads the defensive lineman. If it’s an RPO (run pass option) Ocean is scanning the linebackers. He has all the freedom in the world for the reads, and his numbers show more times than not he gets it right.
“I wish he had it all the time, but it’s been a work in progress,” Riley said.
Ocean was injured against Clayton during his sophomore year and returned in time for the 2017 postseason, missing just two games. In the opener against Northern Durham last season, Ocean completed 14 passes in 21 attempts for 168 yards and four touchdowns in a 53-10 win. It was Ocean’s playoff debut and Riley was convinced he could lead the way.
“I would say from that point on,” Riley explained, “he had full control of the offense.”
WEAPONS FOR OCEAN
Ocean has had plenty of help. Again, Riley left that preseason combine two seasons ago impressed with what he had to work with. This year’s team, Riley explained, isn’t as big as Cleveland teams in the past, which were blessed with big offensive and defensive lineman, but there are plenty of athletic options up and down the roster who know what to do with the ball once they get it in their hands.
It starts in the backfield with senior running back Tyson Dew, who, in a pass-happy offense, still managed to rush for 1,356 yards and 17 touchdowns. Of the group of talented receivers, seven different players have double-digit catches, led by senior Jon Barnes (61 catches, 918 yards, 10 touchdowns) and his classmates Carter Griffin (58 catches, 1,132 yards, 12 TDs).
Kouren Artis (28-470, 6 TDs) and Kaleb Scott (24-411, 3 TDs) would probably be the main threat if they played for any other team in the area.
“From the moment they stepped on campus they’ve been athletic,” Riley said. “It’s just been a matter of maturing and teaching them the offensive and defensive scheme.”
The offense sells tickets, again, the old saying goes that defense is what really wins championships. The Cleveland offense is the show, make no mistake about it, but the defense, Riley said, has been overlooked this season.
Defensively, the Rams have had two shutouts, including one in the opening round of the playoffs, and held six opponents to eight points or less. Last week in a 36-6 win over Hillside, the Hornets’ score came after a kickoff return to the 2-yard line. The previous week, Cleveland defeated D.H. Conley 40-35, but a simple glance at the boxscore doesn’t tell the story.
The Vikings only had one scoring drive that covered more than 40 yards. Conley returned a kickoff for a score and four Rams’ turnovers set the Vikings up inside the 10. Cleveland also threw an interception for a score.
“We really credited (the defense) with giving up 14 in that game even though it said 35 on the scoreboard,” Riley said. “So the defense has played really well most of the season, but really well in the playoffs. People don’t notice that because of our reputation, but it’s been the difference in the playoffs. A lack of athleticism from year-to-year really shows up on the defensive end. We’ve had some bad defenses in the past, but this year is not one of them.”
With the offense getting most of the credit, the defense doesn’t get jealous. In fact, they used it as motivation during the regular season. In the postseason, Riley has noticed that most of his players - on both sides of the ball - aren’t checking their stats after the game anymore. One game away from a state title game, there has been only one stat that matters.
“This time of year all they care is if they win and advance,” Riley said. “I told them the beginning of the playoffs we’re all going to win or we’re all going to lose, not one person is going on to the (next) round by themselves, so they really embraced that, whatever it takes to win.”