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Saturday, September 24, 2011
St. Thomas Aquinas gets defensive

By Corey Long
ESPN Recruiting

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- St. Thomas Aquinas' defense line was the star of Friday's 30-6 victory over Concord (Calif.) De La Salle at home.

Led by seniors Jelani Hamilton and Bryan Cox as well as junior Joey Bosa, the Raiders held De La Salle to 130 rushing yards on 35 carries and forced four turnovers.

"The defense is awesome. Can't say enough about what our defensive coordinator, Robert Wenger, has done," St. Thomas Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo said. "He gets these guys to play. We thought we could keep them under 14 points, and we did."

Hamilton and Cox agreed that discipline played a big part in the unit's success.

"This was a game where we had to play assignment football and free up our linebackers to make the plays," Cox said.

"That's the type of discipline that we have here," Hamilton added. "Our coaches always tell us that there are some games where you are going to be able to make plays and others where you have to stay on your assignment so other guys can make plays."

The duo said the muggy conditions played a role, as De La Salle wore down as the evening wore on. Rains saturated the area in the early evening, delaying kickoff by nearly an hour. Once the game began, the humidity was near 100 percent.

"That's something they aren't used to in California, and you could tell," Hamilton said.

"They are close to the ocean and used to a cool breeze," Cox added. "It was raining here, and when the rain stops, it was basically a steam room."

Both players sent a shoutout to Bosa, the star junior who ended up with two sacks and two forced fumbles.

"He's an animal," Cox said. "That's my man right there."

Keeping his options open
Hamilton committed to Miami before the start of his senior year. Since then, the Hurricanes have been surrounded by a cloud of questions due to alleged improper conduct by a booster.

With that in mind the 6-foot-4, 250-pound, four-star defensive end will hit the road.

"I'm going to take all my visits," Hamilton said. "I'll probably take one during the season and the rest when the season is over."

He said North Carolina, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Florida State are all under consideration.

Hamilton and Cox were in attendance for Miami's victory over Ohio State last weekend.

"I thought they did outstanding," Hamilton said. "They bounced back from Maryland. It looks very promising for me when I get there."

So why would Hamilton insist on taking more visits?

"I have to look at this like a business," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen down the road with this whole scandal. They might take my scholarship away. It happens at other schools."

Looking around
Cox, a three-star linebacker, is wide open with his recruiting but is beginning to focus on a few programs.

"Miami, LSU, North Carolina are all in the mix," he said. "Pretty much some of the same schools as Jelani is looking at but not because of him. We just like the same schools. I think I'm going to take officials after the season and plan them trip by trip."

Cox, who transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas from Avon (Ohio) High School when his father, former NFL Pro Bowl linebacker Bryan Cox, took a job with the Miami Dolphins.

The younger Cox said he is still adapting to the differences in the style of football.

"The players might be bigger in Ohio, but it's much faster here and the game moves at such a quick speed," he said. "Lot of great players here."

Cox said he could go back north for college or stay in the southeast.

"I'm not really sure. It could lean either way. It depends on where my heart leads me," he said.

Game changer
Aquinas was holding on to a 10-6 lead when tight end Nico Shephard grabbed a pass in the flat and rumbled through much of De La Salle's defense for a 27-yard gain. The play energized the Aquinas sidelines, especially alumnus Michael Irvin, who could barely contain himself from running out on the field to congratulate the senior.

Junior running back Fred Coppet scored on the next play, and the Raiders never looked back.

"Nico is just a throwback type player. He's a tough kid. His approach to life is like that," Casullo said. "His father is our special teams coach.

"That was a huge play. After that play, I think our kids got amped up and decided that we needed to finish this thing."

Houston has some problems
It was a rough night for De La Salle quarterback Bart Houston. The Wisconsin commit was 6 for 16 for 80 yards and an interception. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder also lost two fumbles and badly shanked a punt.

There were some bright spots for the Spartans, especially the play of Cal linebacker commit Michael Barton.

"No. 11 blew up a few of our plays," Casullo said. "He's a solid player."

Even though De La Salle didn't have the success it is used to on offense, junior running back Tiapepe Vitale rushed for 91 yards and was a step or two away from breaking bigger gains.

Although the Spartans' only score came on trickery -- a double pass from wide receiver Andrew Buckley to Anthony Williams -- Casullo said the score wasn't a fair indiction of the hard-fought contest.

"If you watch De La Salle on film, they are 100 percent in the first half and 110 percent in the second half," Casullo said. "They will chop you down like a tree. Turnovers hurt them a little bit, but a little of that credit goes to our defense for getting in there and ripping the ball out."

Corey Long has been covering high school football and recruiting in the Sunshine State since 1995. He can be reached at coreyespn@gmail.com.