Underlying almost every ball sport is the assumption that the side in possession is at an advantage. In football, possessions are finite, well-defined and extremely valuable. Even in an age where rules inhibiting the ability of defenses to implement a level of intimidation long thought of as a remnant of the good-old-days, getting 10 yards remains a challenge. As such, maintaining control of the football is and has always been valued.
When that football is jarred loose, what tumbles to the turf is potential, the ability to change the course of a game. A loose ball is a rare opportunity -- one that will occur perhaps no more than a few times, if you're lucky -- to change the course of a contest in an instant.
On the other side lurks the connoisseur of chaos, waiting to strike. That's Nyles Pinckney, Whale Branch Early College High School's mammoth defensive lineman. There's nothing he likes more than creating opportunities.
In the midst of the Warriors' surge to the top of Region 6-AA, Pinckney has wowed observers and opposing teams with his uncanny ability to cause and recover fumbles. There isn't a South Carolina high school record listed for the number of fumbles caused in a season, but whatever it is, the junior standout and star recruit must be close. Already this year he's forced 10, including another in last week's win over Battery Creek. If you're scoring at home, that's an astounding one per game, though there have been times this season, almost amazingly, when he hasn't been able to strip one loose.
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"Nyles almost has an offensive mentality on defense," Whale Branch coach Jerry Hatcher said. "Nyles thinks as he plays. He's trying to do something above and beyond."
Above and beyond is becoming staggeringly routine for Pinckney, who raised eyebrows in 2013 with his play and has backed up that breakout year with an even more productive one. He's a wrecking ball with nimble feet, pace and perception. He's as adept at bull-rushing as he is at tracking down a speedy running back or receiver from behind. Perhaps most impressive of all is his ability to turn a tackle into a turnover, an uncanny gift that has helped Whale Branch rally from an 0-4 start to stifle opponents and roll off six straight wins heading into their first-round home playoff opener against Barnwell on Friday.
Pinckney doesn't really seem surprised with the number of impact plays he's been able to make. It's all a result of practice and planning. At first, he said, he thought consciously about the situation and whether it would be appropriate to go for the ball. After all, focusing on knocking the ball loose often leaves defenders vulnerable to poor tackling form, missed hits and subsequent big plays by a ball-carrier who should have been down in the first place.
"It's a double-edged sword now," Hatcher said. "They get a little taste of it, and now they want more. That can bite you."
As such, Pinckney began by considering the circumstances around each tackle.
"When I first started, I just started out by thinking about it: If I should cause a fumble," Pinckney said. "But after awhile, it just starts coming automatic, because sometimes I'll catch myself doing it without even thinking about it."
What makes him so good, perhaps, is the variety of ways he can rob you of that precious possession. Cover the ball however you like. Pinckney is going to find a way to take it from you -- literally.
"Five [times] he's ripped the ball out of someone's hand and took the ball," Hatcher said.
Running backs are taught to maintain points of contact with the ball: Fingers, palm, forearm, chest and bicep, usually. This is to lock the ball into place. No spot is invulnerable to attack, though.
Pinckney demonstrated his technique after practice one day this week. His preferred method is to come from straight on so that he is in proper tackling position. Once the player is secured, he reaches for the back point of the ball and pulls up and out.
"When they bring the ball down," Pinckney said, pulling his arms into position, "I come down here. I just go like this, pull it out."
If he's coming from the side, he'll try to swipe the front end, where the back normally holds the ball, fingers to each side of the point. Perhaps most effective is forcing the ball out from behind, when the ball carrier is either in the open field or past the initial wave of danger. This makes it easier for the ball to be punched out from the bottom or chopped at from above.
Even worse for opponents? Pinckney has a sidekick in senior Treyvon Bryan, who has forced nearly a half-dozen fumbles of his own.
"We teach our boys, go for the ball," Hatcher said. "It's good to have that. They're all that way. Treyvon is good at it."
Bryan said Whale Branch coaches will view film before that week's game and note the tendencies of opposing ball carriers. Does he keep the ball high and tight or low and loose? Is he careless after breaking through the line? That information is passed on to the defense.
"That's really one of the main things we look at, how the running back holds the ball," Bryan said.
Some are better than others, like Beaufort High School running back Jeffrey Tookes. The Eagles' leading rusher is hardly a physical specimen, but his ball security, among area rushers, is unparalleled, at least in the opinion of those charged with breaking that security.
Pinckney said Tookes is an expert at keeping two arms on the ball as he breaks past the first level before loosening up more in the open field. There's only one problem by that point: "Pretty much nobody is around him."
Then there's the scoop-and-score, a dream scenario for defenders everywhere. Pinckney and Bryan each have at least one to their credit this year. It's an opportunity that doesn't come along very often, and you can bet the pair of them will do everything in their power to get into the end zone when the ball comes loose.
"If it's a big pile, more likely we're supposed to dive on it," Bryan said. "If you see you've got teammates coming and there's open grass, you scoop and score. Take your time when you try and get the ball."
With Pinckney, Bryan and an increasingly dangerous array of offensive tools, Whale Branch has a great opportunity to push forward. The Warriors will host Barnwell in what Hatcher expects to be a close game. Pinckney's prowess at forcing turnovers, then, might certainly come in handy.
"That's a luxury, you enjoy him while you have him," Hatcher said.