Starkville High School’s Zach Edwards, left, was an anchor to coach Chris Jones’ defense and a key reason why the Yellow Jackets advanced to the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State championship game on Dec. 1 at Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. Photo by: Brett Hudson/Dispatch Staff Buy this photo.
December 23, 2017 10:50:07 PM
STARKVILLE -- Zach Edwards had seen enough after the spring game.
The game was his first action as a full-time linebacker under new Starkville High School football coach Chris Jones and defensive coordinator Kevie Thompson. Both coaches saw Edwards' future as a linebacker, as do many college coaches, so they thought it best to go ahead and get him there.
"It wasn't all peaches and cream. He didn't want to play it," Jones said. "I talked to him a few times, and even after the spring game, he wanted to change back (to defensive end). I asked him why and his response was, 'I didn't have many tackles in the spring game.' "
He didn't have that problem again.
Over the summer and fall -- with a little more self-doubt sprinkled in -- Edwards blossomed into one of the state's best linebackers. He ended his junior season with 125 tackles, 36 for a loss, in addition to 11 sacks, nine pass deflections, four forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries.
For his accomplishments, Edwards is The Dispatch's Large Schools Defensive Player of the Year.
"I feel like he probably turned out to be one of the best moves we made all year, moving him to linebacker," Jones said. "It gave us versatility on that side of the ball. We had some good guys up front and it was important that we were good at all three levels. I think putting him on the second level made us complete."
If Starkville would have left Edwards on the defensive line, it would have had an even more dominant unit with Jalil Clemons and Jaylan Ware. They would have had the support of one of the state's strongest secondaries with Memphis commit Natrone Brooks, breakout junior Myles Stone, and breakout sophomore Corbin Grantham, but little on that second level. Had Edwards not changed positions, it could have altered the dynamic of the defense in a negative way.
On the team's run to the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A State championship game, the move proved to be effective for Starkville and Edwards.
"I think long term it's going to be the best move for him for the college level because that's what he'll be, a hybrid defensive end-linebacker," Jones said.
Edwards made the transition easier than most.
Jones described Edwards as a very football-savvy player. He said Edwards often is joking around in the team's facility, but he still soaks it all in. Afterward, Edwards will take it to the field and be one of few players who knew what to do, even though it looked like he wasn't paying full attention.
Edwards said he was comfortable at linebacker in time for the season opener against Noxubee County, but he could tell he could play better.
"About that third game or fourth game, he started seeing it better," Jones said. "It's different seeing it from a three-point stance and coming off the ball versus standing up, reading your keys, guard pulling and all that. He wasn't seeing it initially, but the more he did it, the more he saw it."
The result was a version of Edwards that Jones and Thompson, independent of each other, called a "playmaker." Having a player like that at linebacker is crucial given the offenses Starkville faces every week.
"A lot of teams are going to power read and zone read stuff," Thompson said. "He's one of those linebackers that, when you do run the power read and the defensive end does a good job of playing the quarterback, he has to chase down the running back and he does a good job of tracking that down."
Edwards also grew stronger in pass coverage. Thompson said Starkville didn't ask much of Edwards in that regard, but he did well enough to deflect nine passes. One of Thompson's offseason projects will be to improve Edwards' hand-eye coordination to he can help him turn those breakups into interceptions.
Jones also feels Edwards has potential in the weight room. Jones said Edwards just turned 16 and is in a prime position to"see just how much his body can adapt before the season, how much bigger and stronger he can get."
If all goes according to plan, Edwards could be even more imposing in 2018.
"The sky is the limit with this kid," Thompson said. "He still has some developing to do and this offseason is going to be huge for him."
One thing Jones and Thompson know for sure is they will have a willing subject.
"I want to go to college and play linebacker," Edwards said. "I want to be in the SEC."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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