Friday Night Hero: South Rowan’s Mark McDaniel
By Bret Strelow
LANDIS ó South Rowan defensive back Mark McDaniel stormed onto the scene as a varsity freshman in 2007. He returned a fumble for a touchdown in his first game and intercepted a pass one week later.
McDaniel is one of South’s leaders as a junior, but a promising debut didn’t guarantee an easy progression.
“It felt good that it started like that, but it just didn’t end up right,” McDaniel said. “I didn’t finish the season good enough, like I should have. I should have finished the season better.
“It motivated me to work harder, to get better.”
McDaniel, who played both secondary positions in his first two varsity seasons, has emerged as a standout cornerback for the Raiders.
He’s also the backup quarterback, and McDaniel made an important special teams contribution in a 35-21 win at Jay M. Robinson on Friday night. A 30-yard punt return gave South possession near midfield, and the Raiders moved ahead 21-6 three plays later.
McDaniel’s name wasn’t even listed on the varsity roster the night of the 2007 opener.
“Him playing up was a challenge because he was undersized at that point,” assistant coach Bryan Withers said. “His speed and quickness and knowledge of the game overcame some of those things.”
South head coach Jason Rollins admits that McDaniel might be more dangerous on the offensive side, but his talent is needed on defense. That doesn’t mean the coaches have ruled out incorporating him into the offensive gameplan.
McDaniel was in the fifth grade when his brother, Antonio, rushed for a county-leading 1,382 yards as a South senior in 2003.
“I wanted to be just like him,” said Mark, who has eight carries and two catches in limited offensive duty as a Raider. “He led the team at South Rowan, and I want to lead the team at South Rowan.”
Rollins took over as South’s coach in 2006 and resisted the urge to call up young standouts even as the Raiders struggled on Friday nights.
He wanted McDaniel to begin his prep career on the junior varsity team, but an eye-opening performance in a preseason jamboree ó along with some convincing by Withers ó sold Rollins on promoting the freshman.
“I was adamant about keeping him down because I wanted him to grow,” Rollins said. “He learned to grow on the next level, but that’s helped him.”
The Raiders started the 2007 season with a 20-13 loss to Salisbury, and McDaniel returned a mishandled pitch 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. His interception against A.L. Brown set up a field goal during a 29-17 setback against the Wonders.
McDaniel scored on a 94-yard interception return in a win against Northwest Cabarrus last season, and he played a key role in preventing Salisbury speedster Romar Morris from breaking loose as the Raiders won their 2009 opener.
On a third-down snap from South’s 17-yard line in the fourth quarter Friday, McDaniel baited Robinson quarterback Robert Cloninger into throwing to a hitch route. McDaniel’s only mistake was dropping a sure interception.
“He gave them a look like he was going away,” Withers said. “When he has his mind on his game, which he’s done a great job of this year, we’ll put him up against about anybody. We don’t have to worry much about helping to his side.”