Jerry Hatcher jingled his keys and angled toward his silver pickup parked nearby.
When asked about the secret to his unit's success this season, Beaufort High School's defensive coordinator initially found no answer, sounding almost apologetic as he sought solace from the bugs that appeared following an Eagles practice early this week.
Three consecutive shutouts? More luck than anything, he said. A James Island receiver dropped a pass that could have been a touchdown. The Eagles blocked a field goal after a bobbled snap against Wando. A West Ashley runner fumbled near the goal line.
And remember, Hatcher added, Beaufort High didn't shut out rival Battery Creek High School or Hilton Head High School earlier this season.
But an explanation for the defense's extra bite in 2010 finally became clearer as Hatcher talked more of his current group. Last year, everyone looked to linebacker Justin Parker, now at Clemson, and the Eagles' young defense was content to let Parker carry the bulk of the responsibility.
Now, a year later, the Eagles have fit well into Hatcher's versatile 4-4 scheme. Beaufort High's defense has allowed the fewest points in Class 4-A, just 55 through seven games.
"We all know our responsibilities, what we're supposed to do and how we fit into the defense," said linebacker Kevin Gess, who calls the shots on the field. "And if we all do our responsibilities, then the play can't go wrong for us."
THE RIGHT PERSONNEL
In 2009, Hatcher heard repeatedly of a freshman on the Eagles' 'B' team who punished his fellow ninth graders and should be playing varsity. Hatcher initially scoffed at the idea of a freshman playing for his unit but changed his mind when he saw JaClay Mixon on the field.
"If he were three inches taller, he'd be one of the most recruited football players in the state," Hatcher said of Mixon, now a sophomore, who finished his freshman season on the Eagles varsity. "He's one of the best football players I've ever been around. He's just got instincts."
The 5-foot-9 Mixon filled a void at outside linebacker, or "bandit." The hybrid position is likened to a strong safety, and the Eagles employ a pair. D'Vonta Cohen was the slated to be the other, until Beaufort High head coach Mark Clifford snatched him during the spring to play running back on a full-time basis.
Malcom Dantzler became Cohen's replacement and has impressed.
"He's not the playmaker that JaClay is, but he's solid," Hatcher said. "You won't catch him out of position."
For instance, Hatcher instructs his players to read "CTR" when a play goes to the side opposite them, to say aloud "Counter, trap, reverse" before pursuing a ball carrier. And on film, Dantzler can be seen moving in place, waiting until he's sure the play won't come back to him.
Hatcher has praise for everyone. Inside linebacker Maliek Maldonado, the Eagles' leading tackler, is hailed as a machine. He tallied 21 tackles in the 36-0 win over James Island on Oct. 1.
Senior Jalin Mack can play safety, cornerback or bandit, depending on the package. Defensive end DeEndre Jefferson-Fields earned praise last week for forcing his way into opposing backfields.
Many names are being mentioned where before there was one.
"This year, everybody is stepping up," Mack said.
Clifford jokes that when anyone asks what defense the Eagles run, he tells them he doesn't know.
And he's only half-joking. The bulk of Clifford's attention belongs to the offense. He watches the defense when it is the only unit on the practice field on Tuesdays and later discusses with Hatcher the plan for that week's opponent.
Hatcher is entrusted with the rest. But Clifford knows this much: His offense is built to keep the defense off the field.
"We haven't done a very good job of it the last few games, that's why they've really done well," Clifford said of the defense's recent shutouts.
Clifford added that the defense was inspired by a visit before the season from Mickey Andrews, the former longtime Florida State defensive coordinator who emphasized the goal line in his talks to the Eagles.
"And that's their main job, keeping them out of the end zone," Clifford said. "So we're doing a pretty good job of it so far."