Leading state champions by example

By John Wilbert | NEMS Daily Journal

There were two Dennis brothers on the Lafayette High football team that opponents had to be aware of. One wore No. 5, the other No. 6.
While Demarkous Dennis had opposing defenses keying on him, his younger brother, Jamel, presented a major concern for offenses.
Take, for example, last month’s MHSAA Class 4A semifinals game against Amory.
“He was everywhere. You had to find him,” Amory High head coach Trent Hammond said about Jamel Dennis. “That was one of our keys – to try to find him and to provide protection.”
Lafayette’s senior linebacker wasn’t hard to spot. Preventing him from getting to the quarterback was a whole other issue for the Panthers.
The 5-foot-11, 212-pound Dennis sacked Forest Williams – the 2011 Daily Journal Offensive Player of the Year – four times in a 35-7 victory at Amory’s Longenecker Field.
And with the Panthers’ defense focusing on brother Demarkous – a two-time 2,000-yard rusher – Jamel, the Commodores’ primary short-yardage back, had eight carries for 61 yards and three touchdowns, including a 36-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
But on a night that defensive ends Keeyon Thompson and Cortez Coleman wreaked havoc on Williams, as the Lafayette D registered eight sacks against the Panthers, what shouldn’t go unmentioned is that Jamel, first and foremost, is a linebacker.
For a linebacker to share the team lead for sacks (13 in 16 games), he has to have tremendous athleticism to get to the quarterback. In other words, he has to be a DeMarcus Ware- or Clay Matthews-type.
“If I can tell that I can whoop a lineman, I’ll then tell my coach that I can go,” Dennis said about blitzing during a game.
And it’s Matthews, an outside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, who is among the NFL leaders in sacks, that the 2011 Daily Journal Defensive Player of the Year pays close attention to – and that’s in spite of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers being his favorite player.
“There were very few times that Jamel was out of position,” said Lafayette head coach Anthony Hart. “That was one thing that was a constant for us on defense: He was going to be in the right place, at the right time and he was going to make plays. … But a big percent of the time, Jamel was going to be making that play you expect a great player to make.”
making the plays
That’s essentially why Dennis, in a 3-3 defense, has led the Commodores – state champions in 2010 and 2011, and winners of 32 consecutive games – in tackles the last three seasons. His 154 total tackles in ’11 were nearly 20 more than he had in 16 games last season.
Not to mention, he played his senior year with a pulled muscle in his right shoulder, a pulled groin and turf toe on his right big toe.
“He was a strong-side stack linebacker,” Hart said. “That’s supposed to be your leading tackler, and he was our leading tackler.
“It’s designed for him to be your leading tackler, but you can put a lot of folks there and they won’t be your leading tackler. That was a constant: You knew Jamel was going to make the plays he was supposed to make.”
Dennis did a lot more than just make tackles. And Hart has credited defensive coordinator Eric Robertson – who recently has taken over the head coaching duties, as Hart is set to become the school’s full-time athletic director – for Dennis’ development into a more complete ’backer.
“He did a lot of getting us in the right position,” Hart said of his defensive standout. “And he did a lot of getting the signals in and making the calls.
“He was a leader on defense who led by example. He practiced hard and he played hard. He did those things that he expected everybody else to do also.”
Dennis not only was Lafayette’s goal-line and short-yardage back, but played on every special teams unit.
“Just a consistent, consistent player,” Hart said. “He was versatile and very valuable to us.
“I think he can play defensive end, he can play outside linebacker, he can play a strong safety-type of scheme. He’s just very versatile because he has good speed and good strength, and just be able to do those things that you need a versatile guy to do on defense.”
Hart projects Dennis – a 2010 MHSAA Class 4A 198-pound state powerlifting champion – to be an inside linebacker in college.
“I might start off in juco first,” Dennis said. “If I start off in juco first, I’ll go to Northeast (Mississippi Community College).”
“He plays smart,” said Hart. “He’s got a good feel for the game, great instincts. Just a smart football player.”
john.wilbert@journalinc.com