by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
Playing defensive back is risky and very visible.
Miss a tackle or misjudge a pass, and everyone sees you. But that can work both ways. Intercepting a pass or making a key tackle can swing momentum toward your team instantly.
Hough High safeties Nate Mays and Ben Craig enjoy dancing their cleats on that imaginary line.
“It’s nice because all eyes are on you,” Mays said. “You’re the last line of defense, so when you make the big plays, everyone sees that also.”
Said Craig: “It is a feast-or-famine position a lot of times.”
This season, it’s been more feast for the duo, both seniors.
Craig, the strong safety, leads the Huskies (1-3) with 38 tackles, and he has two sacks.
Mays, the free safety, has a team-leading four interceptions and 33 tackles.
Hough begins I-MECK 4A conference play against Vance on Friday, Sept. 16.
Mays and Craig have been consistently good on an up-and-down defense this season. Hough was riddled for 38 and 55 points its first two games (both losses). The Huskies then beat Providence, 20-3, and lost to Berry last week, 18-7.
Against Berry, Mays had 10 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Both safeties agree that having a short memory is a key requirement for a defender.
“When you get burned, everyone sees it,” Mays said. “When an (offensive) lineman misses a block, they don’t see that.
“After a play, you have to forget it. Do your best on every play, because if you keep thinking about it, you’ll do the same thing over and over.”
Craig’s role on defense changed a bit when Hough lost starting linebackers Ryan Lemke (injured) and Brian Jones (transferred to SouthLake Christian Academy).
“I’ve almost become a hybrid linebacker,” Craig said. “I’m nearer the line of scrimmage more. Our coaches put us in great positions.”
Craig had nine tackles, including one for a loss, against Berry last week.
There has been one downfall with Craig’s new responsibilities: He’s in on fewer chances for interceptions, which hinders him in the playful competition with his buddy, Mays.
Mays has four pickoffs in four games.
Craig, well, he sighed when asked his number.
“Nate has gotten all the interceptions, ever since we switched positions,” he said, laughing. “At first I’d look back and say, ‘Yes!’ Then I think, ‘Oh, no, now he’s got four more than I do.’
Mays, standing nearby, laughs harder than Craig.
Hough defensive backs coach Shawn White said Mays is the team’s most athletic player.
“He is a fast, hard-hitting, instinctive player,” White said.
Mays participated in several one-day college camps last summer. White said Mays stood out with several interceptions at East Carolina’s camp, which caught the eye of the Pirates’ coaching staff. He also played well at a team camp at the University of Alabama.
He’s been an anchor and will play a key role as the Huskies enter I-MECK 4A conference play. Mays isn’t setting goals that are too far away.
“We didn’t get a conference win at all last season, so to win one is the first thing,” he said.
Craig, too, is attracting college attention. After this week’s game, he’s visiting Princeton, where he’ll be a guest at the game against Lehigh on Saturday night.
Craig has a 4.8 GPA, is a National Honor Society member, a Math Honor Society award winner and senior class president.
“I’m really excited about the visit, but nothing is set in stone,” Craig said.
Juggling football responsibilities with school work and other extra-curricular activities has honed Craig’s time-management skills.
Before a practice this week, written in ink on his right hand was “Due: French homework.”
“Not many wing nights,” Craig said, referring to a food popular among the Huskies at Huntersville’s Harvey’s Bar and Grill. “But I don’t want to paint it like all I do is just school, football and homework.”
Mays steps in to rib his buddy instantly.
“I have seen Ben Craig outside of school,” Mays said, laughing.
Both safeties agreed expectations are higher in Hough’s second season.
“Last year, there were a lot of games that we didn’t go in expecting to lose,” Craig said. “But we were never expected to win. Now, it’s more about winning. We’re expected to win.”