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Saraland pushed by its own lofty standards on way to title; lots in play for Ryan Williams’ decision

Saraland linebacker Cam Laffitte (10) slams into Pike Road quarterback Cason Myers as teammates Jermaine Paramore (88) and Antonio Coleman (95) close in. (Todd Stacey/Call News)

Saraland coach Jeff Kelly has instilled a culture of excellence and accountability while driving the Spartans to the verge of a second straight Class 6A state championship. (Todd Stacey/Call News)

No matter his decision on his future, Saraland star Ryan Williams (1) has given the Spartans everything he has in a memorable run to state dominance. (Todd Stacey/Call News)

 

After Saraland turned Pike Road into an exit ramp Friday night, Patriots coach Granger Shook said something basic and irrefutable and altogether telling about the Spartans.

“They’ve got players everywhere,” said Shook, as if he had just spent 2½ hours hopelessly splashing about in an unfathomably deep ocean besieged by sharks who circled a growing trail of blood. His players fought as bravely as they could but Saraland’s defense showed its own version of Gravedigger, burying Pike Road under a pile of losses, while quarterback K.J. Lacey stuck so many spears in the Patriots that they resembled a porcupine.

And that’s the sharp point: There isn’t another high school team in the state as deep in experienced, elite and highly motivated talent as the Spartans, who are pushed by a self-imposed standard of excellence, which is true of all great teams. As Ryan Williams, Mr. Football himself, said in the aftermath of the 46-7 win: “It doesn’t matter who we play. We’re playing against ourselves.”

Of course, they have to play someone in the Class 6A state championship game and that someone is Clay-Chalkville Friday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium in one of the most highly anticipated finals in Super 7 history. Expect the atmosphere of a big-time college game and perhaps a record crowd.

What will they see? Saraland’s attempt to finish 15-0 for the first time, win a second straight Blue Map and enshrine its name among the greatest teams of all time in Alabama — and despite all the Spartans have accomplished, only a win over the Cougars will do it.

But Clay-Chalkville beat Thompson earlier in the season and that alone is reason enough for Saraland to be concerned. The Cougars also have Jaylen Mbakwe, like Williams a five-star player who is even harder to deal with than spell or pronounce (it’s Em-bach-way). Anybody whose last name has more consonants than vowels is a riddle, particularly if it’s uncertain Mbakwe will be at full speed or even play because of a possible concussion he suffered in the semifinals against Parker.

What the thousands who make the pilgrimage to Bryant-Denny Stadium want to see more than anything is a literal head-to-head confrontation on Nick Saban’s plush yard between Mbakwe and Williams, both of whom have committed to Alabama. They’re the state’s No. 1 prospects in the next two recruiting classes.

Will Mbakwe, who has had to play quarterback this season, be forced to go both ways because he is the only player good enough to match up with Williams? Will Williams treat him like a welcome mat?

 

Saraland is just better

 

One neutral, well-qualified observer whose judgment I trust has seen both teams and emphatically said Saraland is simply faster, deeper and better and has only to prove it.

“It’s going to be as close as Saraland wants it to be,” he said.

It was this time last year when the Spartans began turning into a monster, when they feared nothing, when the stage at Jordan-Hare Stadium became too small for them and too big for Mountain Brook in a state championship game the Spartans won 38-17.

When it was still reasonably close at 21-10, Mountain Brook thought it had stopped Saraland on third-and-goal at the 1 on the last play of the first half and its relieved players hurried to the locker room. But two seconds remained, Mountain Brook trudged back onto the field with a sense of trepidation and Williams scored on the next play.

“I had to put the dagger in,” Williams said later. “I had to make them question if they wanted to be here or not.”

Since then, the competition has asked the same question deep down inside. For them, the clock has run out against the Spartans, who savor every second and every yard.

Lacey is an example of that high standard. The preliminary statistics against Pike Road showed he threw for 361 yards. Afterward, Williams told Lacey: “I heard you threw for 360,” to which Lacey replied: “No, 361.” Both shared a quick laugh, about as quick as Lacey’s release and Williams’ urgency to reach the end zone.

The defense is just as impressive. The cornerstone is defensive tackle and Alabama commitment Antonio Coleman, who is not only a human detour sign but often the last thing quarterbacks and running backs remember seeing before their lights go out. Most interior defensive linemen don’t lead the team in tackles for losses but Coleman does (28). His dominating presence also eats up enough blockers that linebackers Cam Laffitte, Cam York, Isaih Bowie and Jamison Curtis and defensive ends Jermaine Paramore and Chris Thompson can roam with impunity, waiting to chop down what gets through. The little pieces which survive to the back end are cleaned up by defensive backs Delvon Gulley, Zay Crenshaw, Eddrick White and Brooks Womble.

Will Saraland defeat Clay-Chalkville and be stamped as one of the most exalted teams in state history? Does Celeste Road get backed up at rush hour?

If he plays, Mbakwe will be stretched too thin against the Spartans, forced to play cornerback because of the threat Williams poses. Playing both ways at that level is too difficult even for a player of Mbakwe’s caliber.

 

A big decision

 

The monumental question is if it will be Williams’ last game in a Saraland uniform and when he will next appear in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

He wouldn’t be teasing an announcement next week to repeat the status quo — that he remains committed to Alabama and/or will play his senior season with the Spartans. The speculation is he’ll reclassify and either stay with the Crimson Tide or flip to Auburn.

If he reclassifies and leaves Saraland a year early — and there are good reasons for it, given the risks and rewards in this new age of football — there should be no bitterness. Nobody can say Williams hasn’t given the Spartans everything he had and helped elevate Saraland football to its grandest peak. He has also been a wonderful ambassador for the school.

There are never guarantees in athletics but Williams’ success at the highest levels of football is the closest thing to one. His generational talent and lasting impact make him one of the greatest football players I’ve seen at this level.

More intriguing than Williams reclassifying is where he will land. Williams is not prone to capricious decisions; he is thoughtful and incredibly mature and also has a strong family to help shape his deliberations.

Is the gathering recruiting momentum and unprecedented assemblage of skill players at Auburn a deciding factor? Hugh Freeze has flipped highly rated receivers Cam Coleman from Texas A&M and Perry Thompson from Alabama to go with Malcolm Simmons and Bryce Cain. Soon after Coleman said he was coming to the Plains, Thompson tweeted “4/5,” an obvious reference to Williams being the missing fifth piece.

If it happens, Williams would be the Tigers’ most celebrated signee this century. Auburn has signed only 17 five-stars since 2000 and few have played up to their potential there, not even Bo Nix, who had to flee to Oregon to do it.

Or will Alabama’s tradition and Saban’s process hold sway and keep Williams where he is? Since Saban came to Tuscaloosa, he has developed 44 first-round NFL draft picks; Auburn has six in the same span.

Another element in play is how much longer Saban will coach. Could Freeze be catching Saban in the fading glimmer of his career despite the best coaching job of Saban’s life this season? Is Auburn telling prospects Saban won’t be there four more years?

Williams wants to win games and championships and he’s thinking about the best place to do it. He committed to Alabama last year when the best thing the Tigers did under Bryan Harsin was to show up on time for the obligatory loss. But those times have changed. Either way, Williams will be a major part of the ongoing Saban dynasty or a major part of Auburn reclaiming its place as a national contender.

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