January 11, 2014 Updated: January 11, 2014 at 11:10 pm
Darius Graves was everywhere - literally. The Harrison senior was the anchor of the 2013 squad, and there wasn't one thing he didn't do on the football field for the Panthers, except maybe throw the ball.
Graves' incredible season included dominance on offense, defense and special teams, and earned him The Gazette 3A and below Football Peak Performer of the Year award.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound definition of athleticism did most of his damage on defense, tallying 77 tackles (24 for a loss), 17 sacks, 18 hurries, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
"A lot of the plays he made were due to pure hustle," Harrison coach Al Melo said. "Teams would just stop running plays to his side, but he'd keep working and run them down from behind. Trying to block him with one guy didn't work, and sometimes two didn't work either. The scary part is he's just scratching the surface of what he can be."
The Panthers suffered some key injuries that halted their plans of a big season, but the one constant was Graves. Harrison picked up just two wins this season, yet Graves was able to collect all-state honors and be named the 3A Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Graves credits his huge year to his offseason preparation, as well as his physical ability and anticipation skills on defense.
"My hands and my footwork helped me to shed blockers and make plays," said Graves, who spent the weekend on an official visit to Army. "Being fundamentally sound and understanding situations helped too. When I could anticipate the play before it happened, I could get in there and make something happen."
While he earned accolades on the defensive side, Graves was equally important to Harrison in other areas. He caught 15 passes for 252 yards and four touchdowns and rushed seven times for 49 yards and a touchdown on offense.
Graves was also on kickoff and punt coverage, returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and blocked a field goal. He simply was everywhere.
"I think he might've come out one play all season," Melo said. "But his work ethic on the field is equaled by how hard he works off the field. He has a 3.7 GPA and takes honors classes and is a mentor to the younger players. Darius sets an example of how to excel on the field and in the classroom."
The majority of the season he would see double teams, and when that didn't work, the offense would stop running plays to his side.
"It could be considered a compliment," Graves said. "But it did get frustrating that we weren't getting stops like we should be getting."
Graves' twin, Demetrius, was a huge part of the Harrison offense. Demetrius was the team's second-leading rusher, and when he had to sit out against Mitchell with a concussion, Darius stepped up.
In the 18-8 win over the Marauders, Darius scored all three offensive touchdowns to lead the team to one of its two victories.
"As a team we were playing for my brother and I was doing everything I could to help win that game," Darius said. "I tried to lead by example as much as I could and coach kept calling my number and I wanted to step up."
The next step is college ball for the Graves brothers. Darius says the pair is looking for a place to play at the next level together, and that it's always been a dream to play football in college.
Melo is surely going to miss both Graves brothers.
"It's going to be bittersweet to see them leave, not just as players, but as mentors," Melo said. "They tutor and mentor the other players and their work ethic outside the field is tremendous. If I were to have two sons I'd want them to be like those two."
Melo, a longtime high school football coach, also says Darius is as good of a player as he's ever coached. He puts Darius in the same class as former Harrison players Vaughn Wingo and D.J. Morman.
"To hear coach Melo say that is an honor, because as a freshman I looked up to those guys he mentioned and they showed me how to become a better player and I used that for all four years," Graves said. "It means a lot coming from coach because he's not a big accolade kind of guy."