PG East: With big-time recruits dotting lineup, Penn Hills looks strong
Penn Hills defensive lineman Aaron Donald, right, sheds his blocker and goes for the running back in the Oklahoma drill on the first day of practice last week.
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When you have Myles Davis, you're going to be jazzed.
In this case, though, Davis is not the famed jazz musician. He's an NCAA Division I recruit beginning his senior season with the Penn Hills High School football team ... and he's got an outstanding trio to join him.
Davis, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior linebacker and tight end, already has committed to play college football at Syracuse next season. He has three teammates who also plan to play at Division I schools next season, creating a group that should make the Indians one of the favorites to compete for the WPIAL Class AAAA championship this season.
Davis can look around the defensive unit and find 6-1, 250-pound senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a dominant inside player who already has made a commitment to Pitt. Cornerback Brandon Ifill (6-0, 180) and safety Cullen Christian (6-0, 175) also are being recruited heavily and are mulling offers from several Division I programs.
"Those guys mean a lot to Penn Hills," said Plum coach Frank Sacco. "It's not very often that you see a team have four Division I recruits on it. They are all special players."
Donald anchors the defensive line, and opposing coaches know they are unlikely to succeed by running the ball his way.
"He's the kind of guy you have to game plan for," Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. "He's a disruptive force. He's explosive. You've got to prepare to double [team] him."
Totten was no less effusive in his assessment of Ifill, who stars at corner and also will play wide receiver.
"He's as good a corner as I have seen," Totten said. "I like Myles a lot, too. They are all outstanding players."
Penn Hills coach Ron Graham, beginning his second season, knows what he has in this quartet. He says each plays a leadership role with the team and has his own individual strengths that combine to create a solid defensive unit.
Graham knows the Indians can improve -- the defending Big East Conference champions allowed an average of 17.9 points per game in the regular season on the way to an 8-4 overall mark last year. They were particularly outstanding in the playoffs, yielding only one touchdown in their first two games before falling to Gateway in the semifinals, 38-23.
"We have a chance to be real good defensively," Graham said. "We've got our entire secondary back and that's going to help us."
None of the starting linebackers -- a group that includes Davis -- has played a down of varsity football at that position yet. Davis played defensive end last season but has moved to outside linebacker in Penn Hills' 4-3 scheme this season. He also will play tight end on offense.
"He's got a real instinct for the ball," Graham said. "There is an adjustment for him to make at outside linebacker. He's used to playing with his hand on the ground. He's got to learn the different reads. But he was an excellent pass rusher at end.
"We think we can take advantage of his talents more to get him into coverage, and we'll be using him on the blitz a good bit, too."
Sacco called Donald "a special player."
"He can just dominate a game," Sacco said. "He's big, fast and quick. He's something special, I think."
Graham said Donald's mental approach to the game is almost as impressive as the physical skills he displays. In addition to his work at defensive tackle, Donald will man one of the guard spots on the offensive line.
"He's got a defensive mentality," Graham said. "He's a disruptive player in there. He's quick and powerful and he has been working hard on his technique. He moves really well; he's hard to block. He just overpowers people."
Ifill, Graham said, is "the complete package" at corner. He also will play wide receiver, where he will be counted upon to help spark a passing game that will need to replace the graduated Tom Fulton, a four-year starter at quarterback.
"[Ifill] is very talented," Graham said. "He's got quickness, speed and he gets to the ball. The thing about him is that he has continued to develop as a player from his sophomore to his junior year and into this year. He seems to keep getting better. He's a hard worker who wants to excel."
Christian, Graham said, is effective in the defensive backfield because he can cover a lot of ground in a short time.
"He's got a lot of range back there," Graham said. "He's fast, he's quick and he can hit you. He's a really competitive kid."
Christian played corner last season but will move to safety this year to take advantage of his speed and ability to cover the field.
"I don't think he'll have any trouble with that adjustment," Graham said. "We moved him because we want to give him more flexibility.
"He's a hard-working kid. His father is a personal trainer who has worked with him -- worked with a lot of our kids -- to really help us with conditioning. Cullen is a real good athlete for us back there."
It is not unusual for Division I recruits to find that when they begin their college careers, they need to add strength and get used to the increased speed of the game. Graham expects his four top prizes to go through those same growing pains, but acknowledges that all four already have emerged as team leaders through their efforts to lead the team in weightlifting and other workout programs.
"All four of them are putting the time in the weight room," he said. "They all have a great work ethic and they are working hard to get better. That's the kind of leaders they are. They do things to bring the team together, and the others follow them. You could not ask for a better group."
Sacco has a similar view of the four standouts.
"It's not too often you see a group come together like those guys," he said. "They really are something special to see. They're going to make Penn Hills a force to be reckoned with this year."
First Published August 27, 2009 12:00 am