At first you wondered if it was a just a coincidence.
An opposing quarterback would come up to the line of scrimmage and call an audible and then a running play would go the opposite direction of where Handley defensive end Stephen Daley was lined up.
But, it didn’t take long to realize that it was not happenstance at all. While the Judges had other talented defensive linemen, the odds just were better staying away from the 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior, who is both strong and has sprinter’s speed.
Even with the ball often headed in the opposite direction, Daley tied for second on the Judges in tackles, led the team in forced fumbles and tackles for losses and for the fourth consecutive season led the area in sacks.
Daley’s stellar play earned him a Division I scholarship to Kent State and a bounty of postseason accolades including The Winchester Star’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Despite being the focus of attention, Daley finished his senior season with a bang as he helped the Judges (9-2) finish second in the Class 4 Northwestern District for the third consecutive season and earn their third consecutive Region 4C playoff berth.
It was almost a familiar refrain this past season from Handley’s opponents. When asked a key to beating the Judges, nearly in lock step the answer started, “Find No. 6 and know where he is at all times.”
So some opponents took this to heart and made sure to identify which side of the field Daley was on and either run or roll out their quarterback in the other direction.
“At first, it took me awhile to notice and then I figured out they were calling to me,” Daley said. “I tried to see if they were only doing it on a pass play so I could get ready for a pass play or they were just doing it in general. I also knew that they were keying on me so the ball wasn’t going to go my way. I just have to try to make the play from the backside.”
Handley coach Dan Jones said he would have been doing the same thing if Daley, the Defensive Player of the Year in the Class 4 Northwestern District and Region 4C and a First Team All-State pick, was in an opposing uniform.
“We game plan against teams that don’t have as good of kids as Stephen,” Jones said. “We were like, ‘Why let their best player stop you?’ I would [run the play] away from Stephen or maybe triple-team him to make somebody else beat you. We do the same thing with kids who are his equal or not as good as him. One hundred percent I would try to not run at him or make sure I had two people on him if we were passing the ball.”
And teams did put multiple bodies on Daley, especially to try to keep him away from their quarterback. Only Kettle Run, which features a quick passing offense, was able to keep Daley from getting a sack.
“There were times at first where some teams would let me have a one-on-one with the tackle,” Daley said. “I’d either get close to a sack or I would beat them and then they would bring a running back [to help]. Or there would be times where I would try to go inside the tackle because the running back was on the outside and I would run into a guard. It was not really a triple-team, but the running back was there or I would get double-teamed by these two [linemen].”
Yet still Daley would find a way to get to the quarterback or make a play. He’d record 14 sacks on the season and nearly a third of his 84 tackles (27) were made behind the line of scrimmage.
“Players like that, you doing everything you can to not have them beat you, but they are still going to make plays,” Jones said. “You know that as a coach. That’s what you expect from a kid like that and that’s why he earned his scholarship and is going to get a chance to play on Saturday afternoons.”
Daley gives a lot of credit for his success to Handley coaches, especially defensive coordinator Jim Gaynor, and his teammates.
“Coach Gaynor does a really good job calling stunts for us which confuses the offensive line,” Daley said. “We have multiple people rushing, so I get a one-on-one if I’m rushing free. That helps a lot. Sometimes in certain situations in the game, I just know I have to go and get the sack.”
Daley also had help up front. Rodd’ney Davenport (84 tackles, 7 sacks) and Nas Nix (49 tackles) each were First Team All-District and All-Region 4C selections.
“It showed teams that even though you can run away, you’ve still got Nas and Rodd’ney,” Daley said. “There’s not much changing. We’ve got athletes over there and they can stop you, too.”
And that’s what Daley likes about playing defense the most — it’s the side of the ball where there’s no limit on who can make an impact.
“Everybody has an equal opportunity to make a play,” Daley said. “On offense, only the ones who have the ball in their hands get really noticed. On defense, everybody has a chance to get a pick or a fumble or make a sack. Anybody can get out there and make a play. And, I just like hitting people, so that’s kind of fun.”
Jones said it’s a pleasure to have someone like Daley to anchor the unit. The senior brought strength and sprinter’s speed (10.81 in the 100 meters) that is rarely seen at that position.
Daley, an honor student, could also be trusted to “wreck it.” After focusing on fundamentals as a young player, Daley was allowed to use his athletic ability to the fullest.
“He allowed us to be sound in a lot of different areas,” Jones said. “We could count on Stephen being a rock on his end of the bargain. It allowed Coach Gaynor to stunt and overcompensate on the strong side. When people like to run to their strength, we could maybe send an extra guy because we knew we had Stephen on the backside to cover up for it.”
And while Daley is soft-spoken and humble, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t competitive. Some of his hits make you feel sorry for the opposing player who is on the opposite end.
“He’s such a humble and soft-spoken kid, but when he gets on the field he competes,” Jones said. “He was driven by the fact that they were double-teaming him. He was driven by the fact that they ran away from him. He wanted to show that he still could compete and do things. That’s what makes him the player that he is.”
It may be a long time before anyone touches that school sacks record. Daley broke Dexter Sloane’s as a junior and added on to it this past season. Daley now has 50.5 sacks, which he accrued in just 37 games.
Daley said he thought nothing of the sacks mark until he saw it for the first time on a list of Judges’ records. “I looked and I was already fifth by sophomore year alone,” Daley said. “For my junior year, it actually became a goal for me since I was so close to it.
“Each year got a little tougher,” he added. “You just have to trust in the game plan. I knew sooner or later, [Coach Gaynor] would put me in positions to get a sack.”
And Daley knew that sometimes, he’d just have to make the play, like his two favorite NFL players J.J. Watt and Chase Young, who like Daley are a rare combination of speed and power.
“If it’s third-and-long, I know we really need to get this stop and get our offense on the field,” Daley said of his mentality. “It’s third-and-long and I know it’s probably going to be a pass. I need to get ready and pass rush and go full speed. It doesn’t matter if they are double-teaming me or not. I have to get back and sack the quarterback.”
Jones said the sacks record is just an indication of the type of player that Daley was for the Judges, one that created excitement for both fans and teammates alike. After one game this season, several opponents asked Daley to pose for a photo.
“We’ve had a lot of great athletes come through here,” said Jones, a Handley alum. “For him to beat the record and by how many is very impressive. We’ve had state players of the year. We’ve had a ton of kids who have had exceptional careers. In 100 years of football at Handley, he’s arguably one of the top three players to ever come through here.”