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November 3, 2010

Former Byrnes stars making their mark

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There's a big-screen drop down projector television in the team room at Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes High. It's just one of the ways the school knows it's one of the big-time high school football programs in the country.

But getting cable piped in so it can watch some former players compete in college is another matter.

That's head coach Chris Miller's goal for Wednesday. He's hoping he and his assistants can watch Byrnes grad Chas Dodd lead Rutgers against USF in a nationally-televised game.

Forgive Miller if he wasn't quite ready this season. After all, he had no way of knowing his kids were going to be this good, this fast in college.

While many high schools had multiple kids earn college scholarships last season, few can match the Class of 2010 at Byrnes: It has three kids in significant roles as true freshman at schools in Big Six conferences.

There's Dodd, in his fourth start at quarterback for Rutgers.

And Marcus Lattimore, a candidate for SEC rookie of the year honors as a star running back at South Carolina.

And defensive end Corey Miller, who is in the defensive line rotation at Tennessee.

Their sudden successes surprised even their former high school coach.

"I knew they were hard workers and good kids," he said. "And I knew they all were going to have the opportunity to play, but I didn't realize it would be this much, this soon.

"It's a credit to them. They are good athletes and good kids."

It's also a credit to Byrnes.

The program is used to big games (it has won nine state titles), used to traveling (it played in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last season) and used to being on TV (it has been on ESPN twice this season alone).

Miller says it gets his kids an early advantage at the next level.

"We're excited that we're able to do things like that," he said. "Our kids get to experience playing big-time football and play in front a national audience. It definitely helps prepare them for playing in college."

He is quick, however, to say the players' preparation is just as important.

"Before, it was unheard of for kids to play as true freshman," he said. "But today the kids are preparing themselves on and off the field so much more. Everyone talks about how big and how athletic high schools kids are these days. It's because they work so hard.

"Now, even when they're freshman, they are ready to go."

They just need a chance.

Dodd didn't necessarily think he'd get much of one this season. In fact, he joined a Rutgers program that seemingly was set at quarterback for next few years as its incumbent starter, Tom Savage, was coming off a record-setting season the year before - coincidentally as a true freshman.

But when a struggling Savage got hurt in Rutgers' game against Connecticut a few weeks back, Dodd rallied the team to victory, earning Big East Player of the Week honors in the process.

Dodd rallied the team to a victory again the following week against Army. Dodd and Rutgers lost their next game (to Pittsburgh), but even though Savage is now healthy again, Dodd has kept the starting job. He has thrown for 817 yards and five TDs against just three interceptions.

"I thought it would be hard for him to step in and take over," Miller said. "But once he got his chance he took advantage."

Lattimore was a different story. As one of the top running back recruits in the nation last year, he was hoping to play right away at South Carolina. He not only has played but has been the team's offensive star, rushing for 702 yards and 11 touchdowns so far.

South Carolina is 6-2 with a win over then No. 1 Alabama. It is ranked 17 in the country heading into a home game Saturday against Arkansas. A lot of it has to do with Lattimore, who also has caught 14 passes for 240 yards and two more scores.

"Marcus was different," Miller said. "He was definitely talking about (playing right away). All of his hard work paid off."

Corey Miller's stats aren't as eye-popping (he has just nine tackles for the Vols) but the fact he's able to play on the line - often going up against players three or four years older than he is - speaks to his talent.

But the coach is quick to point out that while this group is having success right away, it is hardly the first group of Byrnes graduates to have success in college.

"We've got two at Florida State, one at UCLA ... we've got them spread out everywhere," Miller said.

This success breeds future success.

Miller said his current group of players has watched what the 2010 trio has been able to accomplish. In fact, he says, it has made his job easier.

"They saw how hard they worked and how it's paid off and now they want it to," he said.

All Miller and his staff need to do now is hook up that nice big TV to watch them.

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