Avery Roberts and Leah Styles were different.
They played different positions, for different teams, in different divisions, in different parts of the state.
But they had one huge thing in common. Both consistently made plays behind the line of scrimmage.
So when it came time to select Delaware’s Defensive Player of the Year, the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association board of directors and the state’s high school football media couldn’t decide who was best. The vote was a tie.
So Roberts – a big, menacing linebacker from Concord – will share the award with Styles – an undersized, hard-hitting defensive end from Woodbridge. Both had the eye-popping statistics to earn it.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Roberts has had a legendary career, a three-time first team All-State selection. When the Concord defense was on the field, all eyes were on him.
“You know where he is on the field, every single play,” Middletown coach Mark DelPercio said. “As somebody calling the offensive plays, I was looking for No. 11. I knew where he was, what he was doing.”
He was usually in the backfield. Of Roberts’ 135 tackles this season, 18 resulted in lost yardage. Add in eight sacks and he constantly kept the opponent going backward.
“Playing the same teams for the past four years, you kind of get an understanding of what they’re going to do, when certain things were coming,” Roberts said.
Some of Roberts’ best games came against the Raiders’ toughest opponents – Salesianum, Middletown and William Penn. The Sals beat Concord (7-4) twice this year, during the regular season and in the opening round of the DIAA Division I playoffs. The offensive key was targeting Roberts.
“The whole Sallies games, they made sure I was blocked at some point,” the linebacker said. “At the line of scrimmage, they would call out who had me before each snap.”
It wasn’t an easy assignment.
“Our scheme was to put a body on him every single play,” Salesianum coach Bill DiNardo said. “And I don’t think we did it in two games. I don’t think we touched him.”
Roberts had the strength, quickness and elusiveness to handle anyone coming to stop him.
“He’s hard to block,” Concord coach Greg Mitchell said. “Sallies probably did the best job of getting bodies on him. But when he’s out in space, he’s tough to block. He’s very fast, and he’s physical.”
And he was healthy. Roberts struggled with a hamstring injury throughout his junior season, missing three games and playing at less than full speed in the others. This year, he was all out.
“He was 100 percent for 11 games, and you could really see how well he moved,” Mitchell said. “It made a big impact on his play. He made a lot of plays that last year, maybe he didn’t make because of his injury. He just was able to get all over the field.”
Roberts’ favorite play came in a 55-0 victory over Delcastle, when he stripped the ball from a Cougars runner and took it for a touchdown.
“I got my speed back,” Roberts said. “I was able to react much faster to the ball and just stop plays before they got started.”
That speed made Roberts a major-college recruiting target. Nebraska was the first to show interest, and he never wavered. Roberts visited the campus in September and watched the Cornhuskers trounce Fresno State 43-10 before a capacity crowd of 86,047, the 354th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium.
He was sold, and has already completed his classes at Concord. Roberts will enroll at Nebraska in January, with an eye toward playing on special teams and fitting somewhere in the Huskers’ linebacker rotation next season.
“He has a knack for getting to the ball that makes him a Division I player,” Mitchell said. “He understands the game. He studies film, and he had a good feel for what other teams were trying to do.”
Styles was also on every opponent’s radar after earning second-team, All-State honors last season. But as a sophomore, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder wasn’t even on the Blue Raiders’ radar early.
Styles was bouncing between outside linebacker and defensive back on the junior varsity when Woodbridge needed an end to go against the first-team offense during practice.
“By chance one day, we put him in the practice defense at defensive end,” Blue Raiders coach Ed Manlove said. “He went in there and lit us up, and the rest is history.”
Manlove instantly discovered that Styles had a unique set of skills that made him difficult to deal with close to the line of scrimmage.
“He’s like a rubber band,” the coach said. “You can’t really block him. He’s a very flexible kid, contorts himself in all kinds of ways. And he’s extremely quick. His first two or three steps are just amazing.”
His stats were amazing, too. Of Styles’ 89 tackles this season, 33 came behind the line of scrimmage. He racked up 19 sacks as the Blue Raiders went 13-0 and won the school’s first DIAA Division II state championship.
“I like to play close up on the ball, because I like to have a little more contact,” Styles said. “Playing off the ball, I just don’t feel right.
“When they’re in a two-point stance and I’m standing up, it gives me more than half a second to get past them.”
His surprising burst kept opposing linemen off guard.
“He’s got quick hands, quick feet,” Manlove said. “That was the key to him making the plays, because you didn’t know where he was going to set up. You didn’t know where he was going to end up.”
And Styles added an element of power to his game this year that made him even harder to stop.
“This season, he could take on the big linemen and just drive them straight back,” Manlove said. “That wasn’t his thing last year. But he figured it out, because he’s just got a motor. He was taking double teams against Milford and [Wilmington] Friends, and he was just driving those kids straight back into the quarterback.”
The Blue Raiders’ defense was stellar all season, holding opponents to just 68 points in 13 games – a 5.2 average. No one scored more than 12 on the Woodbridge D, which was at its best in the 14-9 victory over Friends in the championship game.
The Quakers’ only touchdown came on an interception return. Styles combined with fellow defensive end Shymere Vessels – also a first team All-State pick – and the rest of the defense to stop Friends after Woodbridge lost fumbles at its own 20 in the first quarter and own 13 with six minutes to play.
“Last year, we were just hoping we could squeeze into the championship,” Styles said of an 8-4 team that lost to St. Georges 33-14 in the semifinals. “This year, it was a determination thing. We were going to make it to the championship and win it. We achieved our goal.”
Styles’ next goal is playing college football. Manlove projects him as a strong safety at the next level, and said Styles may need to go to a prep school or junior college to learn a new position. Styles is eager to attack that transition, but already has a skill that will be valuable to any defense.
“It’s not that hard to get past them. I don’t know what it is,” he said of blockers. “It’s just easy for me to slip through.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.