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You need thick skin to play the secondary

Published Oct. 18, 2005

Seminole's Fred Mauck had a choice: stay cool or be roasted. "Coach (Sam Roper) said Tuesday before the East Bay game that he was going to put me on Warren Hall," said Mauck, a junior defensive back for the Seminole Warhawks. "He said he was a real good receiver, and I would be switching sides to keep up with him. Then I read the day of the game where he had like 14 catches and 250 yards receiving in three games. That kind of got me worried."

By the end of the game, the explosive East Bay passing attack had been blunted. Hall, an all-state selection, finished with seven catches for 87 yards but no touchdowns, Seminole finished with a 21-7 upset win, and Mauck was anointed a hero, rare for someone at what many feel is the toughest position on the field.

Secondary people need to be skilled in a number of areas: smart enough to recognize routes and coordinate coverages; ferocious enough to stop bulldozing fullbacks and tight ends; fast enough to run stride for stride with track stars dozens of times a game. Finally, they need to be mentally tough enough to deal with public embarrassment, which often is just a head-and-shoulder-fake away.

"I used to have to get up in front of people and make speeches," said Kevin Abrams, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound junior at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. "And playing defensive back is kind of like that. It's just you up there and everybody can see you. You just have to concentrate and do the job."

Still, secondary people can look good. They can make a game-saving interception or an acrobatic defensive play. Also, their position lets them build up momentum for the torturous tackles that make everyone's highlight films.

But when they look bad, they look bad. Nothing ruins a weekend like getting burned deep.

"I played linebacker back in college," said Ridgewood coach John Castlemare. "When I messed up, I could always blame it on somebody else. I never would want to play defensive back. Just looking the wrong way can mean a touchdown."

It takes a strong mind to deal with such manic-depressive fortunes. Seminole's Mauck is an honor society member and has a 4.0 grade-point average. Hillsborough's Abrams was president of the student council back at Middleton Junior High in Tampa.

A little cockiness doesn't hurt either.

"You have to be, definitely," said Mauck. "Even if they beat you, you can't let it get you down. You have to know you can do the job. Once the other team sees you losing confidence, they'll walk all over you."

But the best way to bolster confidence is not to get beat. So, like an army general assigning elite soldiers to protect key installations, high school coaches often put their best athletes in the secondary.

Largo free safety Brian Magee runs a 4.59-second 40-yard dash and bench-presses 340 pounds. Clearwater's Ernest Starker runs the Tornadoes' basketball offense in the winter. Northeast's Marlo Dickens is a state qualifier in the triple jump.

Hillsborough coach Dick O'Brien doesn't look at just that. He looks at the feet.

"You look for the right kind of walk," he said. "Toes pointed forward, but not like a duck walk. If you can't walk right, you can't run right. And the good players do that beautifully. When we see someone like that, we take them aside and try to catch their ears a little bit about all the advantages of playing defensive back."

Why the attention to footwork? Because defensive backs are the only athletes on the field who have to shadow 4.5 sprinters _ while running backward.

"Everything a defensive back does is off a backpedal," said O'Brien. "And not only does a defensive back have to be able to run backward, but he has to be able to make a quick change of direction off that backpedal without losing a step. It's tough."

Each secondary position has its particular challenges.

The strong safety has to make the calls and adjust defenses for everyone on the strong side _ the side with the tight end. And since teams tend to run to the strong side (because of the extra blocking power of the tight end), the strong safety has to be able to take on blockers and upend runners as well as a linebacker.

Free safeties have to be fast and alert enough to help on plays all over the field, especially double coverage.

And the cornerbacks "I think cornerbacks have it the worst, because they're so isolated," said Clearwater coach Tom Bostic.

Mauck agrees: "It can get kind of lonely out there, especially when one of those guys blows by you."

So a defensive back has to take any edge he can get. Hillsborough's Abrams has at least a couple of tips.

"The one thing you want to do is always watch his eyes," said Abrams. "A good receiver will always look over the field. That way you can get an idea of where he's thinking about going. And when you make your break, you have to learn how to adjust your stride _ from a long stride to a short choppy stride when you get around the ball. I'm still learning how to do that."

But sometimes the ball gets to the receiver anyway. That's when the defensive back goes to the more direct approach: separate the receiver from the ball.

"Every once in a while, you get the guy just as he reaches back for the ball," said Mauck. "That feels great, especially after he has just beat you deep. That way, he might not go as hard next time."

But intimidation tactics can backfire when the target is a 220-pound fullback who just got dumped by his girlfriend.

"I go after the big people very carefully," said Northeast's Brian Goldych, who is 5-8 and 140 pounds. "I just stick my head in and wrap up the best I can. The worst I ever got it was in spring training when (Northeast lineman) Tony Swain was trying out for running back. He just flat ran over me a couple of times. I've never been run over outside of that, though I've had to hang on to a few people."

The key in that situation is to be aggressive, said Largo strong safety David Campbell.

"You can't sit back and let him hit you," he said. "You have to be the one delivering the hit, not the one taking it. After you keep hitting them, they will start running away from you, and that way they'll just wind up getting hit harder."

Not every defensive back can be a Ronnie Lott or a Lester Hayes, and in-your-face pass completions, frustrating assignments and oversized ball carriers come with the territory. But Hillsborough's Abrams is pretty happy where he is.

"The thing I like about it is that you always get a chance to redeem yourself," he said. "You know they are always going to be coming at you again."