Covering Miami-Dade high school football for the past decade has allowed me to develop some special relationships with guys who have ended up at The U. One of those is safety Lovon Ponder, who is without question one of the greatest two-sport athletes to come out of Dade in the last decade. Ponder, in fact, is one of the rare Dade athletes to win a state football and basketball title in the same season. He did that in 2003 at Monsignor Pace.
While most of the attention in Miami's secondary will go to former Carol City star Kenny Phillips (a guy I've always believed would end up being a first round pick since I first saw him as a sophomore in high school) Ponder could be the guy who shines brightest this season. With Anthony Reddick out for the season and Brandon Meriweather off to the NFL, Ponder's role and responsibility in Miami's secondary has been elevated. While freshmen Jojo Nicholas (Homestead High) and Doug Wiggins (North Miami Beach) are likely to own Miami's safety future, Miami's last line of defense the next two seasons will likely be Ponder's responsibility.
I caught up with him at media day and had a long one-on-one conversation. Here it is:
Q: First of all, how are you and how do you feel about the opportunity now of really being counted on to be the man with Kenny Phillips at safety?
A: "It's a great opportunity for me and Kenny to lead this secondary group that I believe is one of the best in the country. It'll be a fun ride if this group right here can stay together and stick with each other."
Q: What's it like to play with Kenny back there? You guys obviously grew up just a few miles away from each other in Opa Locka? When did you first meet and how well do you guys know each other, to the point you don't even need to communicate on the field?
A: "Actually, through a marriage, my wife and Kenny are cousins. We're related. I met him when he was in the 10th grade at Carol City and I was in the 11th grade at Pace. We kind of connected then. And when he came here we kind of connected even more. My wife Lakanya and him went to Carol City together. It's a small world. They treated each other like sister and brother out there."
Q: Talk to me about the rest of those guys in the secondary, start with Randy Phillips first. I know recently he lost his brother. What's it been like talking to him and have you guys been trying to lift his spirits?
A: "It's devastating to lose a brother, especially one your close to. When I found out it happened, I called him and asked him how he was doing and just let him know I'm there for him. He's going to be stepping up big time as a starter and he started last year and played pretty good last year. I believe he's going to play good this year. He was kind of down, but I believe when he went home and saw his son that uplifted him. I have a son and anytime I do something bad or something bad happens, I just look at him and know life goes on."
Q: Talk about Glenn Sharpe. What have his spirits been like? I know he's had a rough career here with injuries and what happened in that 2002 national title game.
A: "Glenn is probably the most high-spirited guys on the team. I always look at him as motivation because he could have quit anytime he wanted to because he could have said 'This is over, I tore both knees, I don't need to play.' But he's stuck through it and through the grace of God he's still here."
Q: There are a lot of other young guys from Dade who are going to be a part of the future of this secondary, Chavez Grant (Booker T. Washington), DeMarcus Van Dyke (Pace), Jojo Nicholas and Doug Wiggins. How are they doing? And are of them ahead of the game, more mature then expected?
A: "It's equal opportunity really. They're going to get a chance to show what they can do in two-a-days to have a chance to play against Marshall. Jojo Nicholas is really going to come along as the third or fourth safety behind me Kenny and [Wille] Cooper. Tervaris [Johnson] and Chavez have been playing real good. Then, you got DeMarcus who has been doing really well covering guys. Bascially, all of those new guys who came in have gotten interceptions on 7-on-7s and really done things."
Q: Anybody in those 7-on-7s really show you something or standout?
A: "I'll say two guys, probably DeMarcus and Jojo. They played pretty good on 7-on-7s, picking up plays and just learning the system."
Q: What it's like with coach Walton being the coordinator and not having coach Shannon out there, calling the plays?
A: "It's no different. It's the same defense. They basically run the same philosophy. It's just a different coaching style."
Q: Last year, you threw that touchdown pass in the win against North Carolina. People say that might have been one of the top moments of all of last season. Any chance we get to see your arm again this year?
A: "Hopefully, he'll do it again. And if he don't, maybe I can be a decoy, run the fake and they go deep to Lance, Sam or Nuke."
Q: Talk a little about the receivers and what you saw out of them this summer, and the quarterbacks too, are they really better than last year?
A: "Oh, they're 100 percent better. I guess their chemistry. They have been in the film room together, outside, running routes and doing different things that has really made them a unit."
Q: Do you think coach has really made a huge impact with the offense by having the offense sort of work the same way the defense has for years?
A: "It's a credit to Coach Shannon and to Coach Nix. Coach Nix is basically Coach Shannon on the offensive side. He's fiery, gets hoarse a lot in practice. I know he pumps the offense up."
Q: The receivers, I know Darnell missed the spring and is coming off that injury. He cut his dreads Is there a different attitude with him and Leggett?
A: "Different attitude. Both of them. They have workman's mentality. They're much better. Nuke is doing real good and Lance is doing real good. They're different people."
Q: You mentioned Jojo and DVD on defense, which freshman have shown you the most on offense in the receiving game?
A: "Well, Jermaine was doing real well in the springtime before he hurt himself. Richard Gordon looked pretty good at tight end because he's quick and fast. Leonard can really catch the ball. He's got that knack for the ball. He goes and gets it. There were several times in 7-on-7s he went and got the ball over a couple of people."