Things could have gotten out of hand for Atlantic High at the start of the Class 8A state semifinal football game Dec. 1. Miami High had scored on its first drive, picked off an Atlantic pass in the end zone and was beginning its second trip down the field.
That’s when Atlantic senior defensive end Alex Jean-Mary intercepted a screen pass and returned it to the Miami 5-yard line. His interception shifted the momentum. The Eagles scored three plays later en route to a 28-21 victory over Miami, punching their ticket to tonight’s championship in Orlando.
“I was just trying to make sure I held onto the ball,” Jean-Mary said.
Jean-Mary is part of Atlantic’s four-man starting defensive front that has dominated opponents this season. Together, Jean-Mary, defensive end (and wide receiver) Cadarius Gaskin and defensive tackles Jason Mercier and Henry Bryant III have totaled 178 tackles, 74 of which were for a loss, and 40 sacks.
They’re a big part of the reason the Eagles will play Orlando-Dr. Phillips for the Class 8A state title at Camping World Stadium in Orlando today at 8 p.m.
“That’s where it starts, with our defensive line,” Atlantic coach T.J. Jackson said. “The success we’ve been having, great success, with our defense is because of our defensive line.”
Each brings something different to the field. Mercier and Jean-Mary are tall and quick, as is 6-foot Talus Acelouis, who also gets playing time on the line.
“Jason brings a little quickness to him, and (he’s) explosive,” Jackson said. “Alex Jean-Mary brings the quickness with him off the pass rush. And Talus just brings a lot of quickness.”
Bryant is the bulldozer. Only a sophomore, Bryant is 5-foot-11 and 280 pounds and holds offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Pittsburgh and more. He’s can plow through a center or guard, and he has racked up 32 tackles for loss. He also excels as a fullback: he ran in two touchdowns, including the game winner, in the semifinal.
“Henry brings all three: quickness, explosive and also mass,” Jackson said.
Two of the four starters came to Atlantic before the season: Mercier transferred from Boynton Beach and Bryant transferred from American Heritage. Mercier, who has offers from many Division I schools, said playing in a state title game, led by this powerful defensive line, is what he expected when he joined the Eagles.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a dream come true, to be honest.
“I saw Alex Jean-Mary, I saw Henry, I was like, ‘Oh man, this lineup is crazy.’ ”