Braces showing through a wide smile, Quintin Dupper perked up and claimed his rightful spot as oldest.
Claiming elder status was a tough sell. From physical stature to boyish demeanor, nothing about Dupper said upperclassmen.
Because he’s not. The Decatur High sophomore is barely old enough to drive.
Young age, however, hasn’t kept Dupper from finding his way onto the football field — and enjoying success in his starting role.
Same goes for three of his Decatur classmates: Trae Hayes, Tae Hayes and Terry Green.
Youth is alive and well on Decatur’s defense, with sophomores claiming four of the 11 starting spots.
“There’s an old adage that says with every sophomore you start, that’s worth one loss,” said Decatur coach Jere Adcock, whose Red Raiders travel to Clay-Chalkville Friday for the opening round of the Class 6A playoffs. “But with these guys, that doesn’t hold true. All four of them are very good football players.”
Good players who have grown up quick, becoming key pieces on Decatur’s defense.
All four sophomores are among the Red Raiders’ statistical leaders in at least one defensive category.
Linebacker Trae Hayes leads Decatur with 11.6 tackles per game, and Dupper, a 5-foot-10 and 160 pound linebacker, isn’t far behind at 7.5 tackles per game.
Hayes’ twin brother, Tae, leads Decatur with four interceptions, and Green has two interceptions from his defensive back position.
Adcock offered high praise for his budding stars, but the quartet admit the learning curve was long.
Only Trae Hayes had previous varsity football experience. He started last season as a freshman, getting his first start at age 13.
A few lumps and stumbles were expected, because adapting to the physical challenges of Class 6A football was a significant step for these young players.
“And you’ve got to remember, it’s not unusual for these guys to be going up against guys who will be playing in college next year,” Adcock said. “All the way up until they get here, they played against guys who were either their age or one year older, so being that much younger than everyone else on the field can be a shock.
“But these guys have all handled it well. They’ve caught on fast, and they’re all becoming pretty good players.”
Dupper said the transition wasn’t easy. The first days at practice were a shock.
“I had an idea about what to expect, but when you step out on the field for the first time, you find out in a hurry that this is a whole new level,” said Dupper, who is the oldest of the four at barely 16. “When I took that first hit at practice, that was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Mistakes were made early. All four admit that. But how they learned, adjusted and developed is what stands out.
And as the four sophomores grew into their starting roles, Decatur’s defense evolved into one of the area’s best, giving up just 10.5 points per game during a current four-game winning streak.
“Where we are now compared to the beginning of the season, it’s not even close,” Green said. “You pick up things along the way from listening to the older guys and your coaches. It’s a learning process.”
Tae Hayes agreed.
“There’s nothing like game experience,” he said. “The more you play, the better you get. And I definitely think we’ve gotten better.”
Hard to argue.
Decatur struggled with consistency early in the season, but now enters the playoffs with momentum, winning five of its last six games.
Next up? A Clay-Chalkville team that beat Decatur 33-0 in a preseason jamboree.
Trae Hayes said he looks forward to the challenge.
“We’ve gotten a lot better since then,” he said. “They’ve got a really good team, and it’s going to be a tough challenge. But we’ve worked hard to get here, and we’ve gotten better at the same time. All we can do now is go out and give our best effort. If we do that, then we’ve got a chance.”