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February 20, 2011Gilman's Biff Poggi was in the middle one of those "good" dilemmas -- you know, the ones all coaches wish they had. See, Poggi had this beanpole freshman who could run like an Olympian, catch like Jerry Rice and throw like Roger Clemens. Problem was, he couldn't find the kid a position. Was he a quarterback? A running back? A receiver? A slot back?
Poggi could have taken the safe route and played him at one of the less strenuous positions like receiver. Instead, he decided to take a chance.
In a rather bold move, Poggi gave the youngster a shot sitting under center. On top of that, he used the classic sink-or-swim tactic, thrusting him into the Greyhounds' first preseason scrimmage against Cardinal Gibbons. Initially, it looked like a colossal mistake.
The kid fumbled.
Then he kicked the ball away.
But just before the Greyhounds coaches could cover their eyes, something extraordinary happened. The pipsqueak freshman never panicked; he calmly picked up the loose ball and started to run. He sidestepped a Gibbons linebacker, out-maneuvered two more defenders and before Poggi could blink he was dashing down the sideline. Eighty yards. Touchdown.
And then he did it again (sans fumble). On. The. Very. Next. Play.
"We had to pull him out after that so other teams wouldn't catch on so soon," said Poggi, laughing as he reminisced about that 2008 scrimmage. "The kid was just ridiculous. Trust me."
Yes, Gilman will be just fine with Cyrus Jones at the helm. The heir apparent to Darius Jennings, one of the greatest prospects in state history, is set to be the new face of the Greyhounds.
"Cyrus Jones is a tremendous athlete with great character," said Jennings, a four-star prospect and state MVP who started at quarterback the last three years. "The world is open to him. With his talent, there's no telling what he can do next year."
And thus the torch has been passed. The torch has been passed to a 5-foot-11, 183-pound specimen with a 4.49 40-yard dash, a three-foot-plus vertical leap and a 450-pound squat. The torch has been passed to a multipurpose specialist who last year compiled 1,240 all-purpose yards and nine touchdown on offense, picked off five passes on defense and would have scored on a few kick returns if teams, you know, actually kicked to him.
The torch has been passed to a former four-sport athlete (baseball, basketball, football, track) who already has a dozen Division-I scholarship offers, was named a U.S. Air Force Junior All-American and was a unanimous All-State selection.
The torch has been passed to a phenom who can dazzle and dodge, rip and run, craft and create, pummel and power, thrust and throw.
Basically, the torch has been passed to the next Darius Jennings.
"We're losing a great player in Darius, no doubt about it," Poggi said. "But Cyrus is a great player in his own right. You're going to see a kid who's very special. He has blinding, breakaway speed, a rocket, accurate arm and he's a very natural runner. He'll run the Wildcat very nicely. He could be the Denard Robinson of this league, that's for sure."
Poggi may be a little biased, but even Jones' adversaries speak highly of him. Calvert Hall had arguably the best defense in Maryland last year, but when the Cardinals played Gilman Jones tallied two eye-opening runs, including a 58-yarder to set up a touchdown and a 47-yard kick return to give Gilman a chance to win at the end (the Greyhounds still lost). The performance left quite an impression on Calvert Hall cornerback Da'Quan Davis.
"Going against Cyrus was a challenge. He's definitely an elite athlete," Davis said. "He's so explosive and quick in and out of his cuts. You have to be a technician going against him. If you're lazy, he'll make you look stupid. You better be on your toes going against Cyrus Jones."
It's quite clear Jones can ball out. But that's not all it takes to lead an offense and become the face of the program.
The major question now is, Can Jones lead?
"He was able to do well in his role with me there - he just took the ball and went off," Jennings said. "But now that I'm leaving, he's the target. It's on his shoulders to handle the success and adversity. He has to realize that he can't put it all on his shoulders, but at the same time he's the leader and the guy. It can be a tough balance."
So, can Jones dig it? Does he have what it takes to anchor the Gilman Wildcat, rally his team against the likes of DeMatha and Good Counsel, deal with the media, answer to college recruiters, appease the fans and keep his grades in order?
"If you can't handle the pressure of leading a football team, then you can't handle anything in life," Jones said. "That said, it's going to be a big challenge taking the team on my back and being a leader every time I step on the field. But I love the challenge. I welcome it. It's fun for me."
He digs it. Bring it on.
It seems Jones has been groomed as Jennings' successor since he came up to varsity midway through his freshman season. Jennings was just one year ahead of him, so it made sense that the elder statesman would take the newcomer under his wing.
But in reality, Jones' maturation began years earlier. Jones' father, Cyrus, Sr., is the head basketball coach at Dunbar High. Like any respectable and successful coach, Senior instilled a strong sense of discipline and work ethic into his son's life.
When Cyrus Jr. tried out for basketball in elementary school, his father made sure he practiced perfect technique such as dribbling with both hands, proper free-throw form and staying low on defense. Cyrus' mother, meanwhile, stayed on him about his grades, making sure he put his education first.
"Cyrus has a great family," Poggi said. "You can tell he is a coach's son. He knows how to work, he knows what the expectations are, he knows to keep his priorities straight and he knows how to lead his teammates. That stems from his father and his mother."
When Jones reached high school, Jennings joined in on molding the young athlete. Over the next three years, Jones watched attentively as his mentor balanced football, friends, family and fame. He paid attention to how he gave lighthearted interviews, politely cajoled college recruiters, laughed with fans and became an active part of the community. And whenever Jones had questions, Jennings was quick with an answer.
"Any time you need him, he's there," Jones said. "Darius has always been that person when I mess up, he's telling me what I need to do. He's always giving me tips and advice. He's like a second father figure who happens to be my teammate and friend."
There are still some things that leave Jones flustered, however. At basketball games, wide-eyed kids will tentatively approach him -- Sharpies in toe -- and ask for his autograph. It's not something Jones, a high school kid who has been driving for less than a year, feels completely comfortable with.
"It's shocking to me. I mean, who am I?" Jones said. "I try to stay as humble as possible, but when someone asks for your autograph, you step back and think, 'Whoa, they really look up to me.' It puts things in perspective and it lets you know you have to be on your Ps and Qs at all times.
"You know, I have a little brother who's 10 years old who looks up to me more than anybody in the world," Jones continued. "So I try to put everyone I meet in his shoes and realize that everyone is focusing on you, watching everything you do - the good and the bad. You have to realize you're a role model and act like one."
Jennings couldn't have said it better himself.
Although Jones has adopted his mentor's leadership traits, their personalities couldn't be more different. While Jennings is open, sociable and easy-going, Jones is straight-faced and serious. He can seem closed off to some fans and strangers, but in reality Jones is just a shy, reserved teenager who would rather not put himself in the spotlight.
To those who know him well, however, he's a highly attentive, sensitive individual. When Poggi's sister was gravely ill, Jones took the liberty to send him a text message telling him how sorry he was.
"He really understood the pain I was going through," Poggi said. "It was an amazing show of support that you don't normally see from kids his age. He has an incredible heart."
That heart manifests itself on Friday nights, too. On the field, Jones is a tough-minded gamer whose stoic demeanor belies his passion, fire and self-confidence.
Jennings recalls a 2009 game between Gilman and a powerhouse squad from Colorado, Bear Creek. In a wild, high-scoring affair, Bear Creak had just driven down the field and scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Before the ensuring kickoff, however, Jones turned to Jennings and looked him in the eye: "No need to waste time on offense," he said. "We'll just score right now."
"And that's what he did," Jennings said. "He went out and took the kickoff back for a touchdown."
By Jones' junior year, Gilman knew they basically had two team leaders. It was Jennings' team, but Jones was second in command, even though he was still an underclassman.
If there was any question about Jones' leadership abilities, he answered them in the Gilman-Good Counsel showdown last season. Despite the magnitude of the opponent, Jones refused to waver. During one second-half sequence, he spoke up in the huddle - Jennings' huddle.
"[Jones] said, 'I don't care who's going to be on me. Throw me the ball and I'll be open. I'll make a play,'" Jennings recalled. "Now, I don't really trust too many people when they say that, but with Cyrus I do. On that play, he made it happen. Touchdown - 30 yards."
Jones has had countless defining moments over his career, but next year the Greyhounds need even more. Like Jennings the last two seasons, he'll touch the ball on virtually every play. He alone will be the difference between a solid Gilman team and a great one.
"I've been preparing for this moment since I've been here," Jones said. "I'm ready to step forward. Now, it's my turn."