There are a number of solid programs in Baltimore County, but only two can call themselves perennial powers: Eastern Tech and Hereford. If another squad wants to claim County supremacy, they must go through either the Mavericks or the Bulls. Moreover, before any player can claim star status, they have to shine against those ultra-stingy defenses.
Last year, playoff-bound Catonsville High had a showdown with Eastern Tech in Week 7. The year before, the Comets were pummeled, 42-13. But this time around Catonsville gave the Mavs a game. They didn't have quite enough firepower to beat Tech - they lost 19-6 -- but for almost one half, Catonsville had control.
For that, the Comets can thank junior receiver Deniko Carter.
It was the first quarter of a scoreless game and the Comets had the ball at their own 29-yard line. On second down, Catonsville coach Rich Hambor called for "Backside 5," which is basically a go-route for Carter.
At the snap, the 6-foot-3, 175-pound Carter bee-lined past the cornerback and broke free down the sideline. But before quarterback Aaron Jones could find him, he slipped and lost his footing. Carter, showing field awareness, halted mid-route and came back for the ball. Jones, however, didn't have much time with the defense collapsing. But just before they belted him he lofted a pass in Carter's direction.
The big wide-out snatched the pigskin away, shook off a defender and then turned upfield.
"I saw nothing but open field," Carter said. "Seventy-one yards later - touchdown. That had to be the best catch of my career because it came against such a good team in such a big game. I studied a lot of film that week . . . to make a play like that against them, it doesn't get much better."
With that, Deniko (he prefers "Niko") Carter officially became a prime-time player.
It's not often that Catonsville trots out a Division-I caliber athlete, but Carter is as close as they come. A bundle of raw potential, the tall, lanky receiver has track speed, sticky fingers, outstanding body control, deft footwork and an all-important knack for making the big catch.
"Guys with his size, speed and athleticism don't come along every day," Hambor said. "He's very physical, he has great hands and he knows how to go up and get the ball. We haven't been able to use the jump ball on offense once since I've been the coach. But last year we could put it up in the back of the end zone and he'd go get it."
Carter pulled down six such passes last year, and he had eight touchdowns total. That's an astounding number considering he only caught 15 passes all season.
"We were mainly a running offense; we ran like 70 percent of the time," said the quarterback Jones. "But when we did throw it, Niko always made a play. What I liked most is that he always fought for the ball. Not every receiver will do that."
Carter may only have participated in 30 percent of his team's offensive plays, but he made up for it on defense, where he was on the field 100 percent of the time. At free safety he snared six interceptions and returned two of them for touchdowns, a performance that ultimately earned him All-County defensive honors last year.
In Week 1, Pikesville tried to run a simple 10-yard out-route early in the game. But Carter, who was at least 30 yards away at free safety, bolted for the sideline, lunged forward and picked off the pass. He proceeded to keep his balance and scamper into the end zone for a touchdown return.
"We thought it looked good live, but when we watched the film, we were like, 'Wow, how'd he do that!'" Hambor said. "It's like he always knows where the ball is going. Sideline to sideline, he just has such a natural feel for the game."
Carter may be a natural on defense, but his preference is offense.
"I like making all those plays on defense," Carter said, "but I like the ball in my hands as a receiver more. That's where I think I can make more of an impact in college."
Of course, there are some who believe Carter isn't an offensive or a defensive guy in college. There are some who believe football isn't even his best sport.
"My grandfather always said I'm better at basketball then football," Carter said, chuckling. "I am a pretty good [basketball player], but I think football is best for me."
Evidently most scouts agree with Carter. He's already receiving major interest from Division-I schools, and he's put on quite a show at a few junior days and combines.
"His size and athleticism are special," said Rivals recruiting analyst Wayne Yarborough. "He runs crisp routes and has double moves in his arsenal - good hands, too."
It helps that Carter has family who have helped develop his craft. His father, Purnell, played football at Bowie Sate, and his uncle suited up for Central Oklahoma and South Carolina State. Carter, however, has a chance to trump them both.
"We both played at D-II schools, but Niko is getting a lot more D-I hits then any of us ever received," Purnell said. "That's exciting. I'm extremely proud of what Niko has accomplished thus far. But I don't want him to get complacent. There's still a lot of work to be done."
First and foremost, Carter must bring up his GPA, which currently sits at a 2.5. A low GPA was part of the reason Carter didn't play football his first two years in high school.
Coming out of eighth grade, he was supposed to attend North County High in Anne Arundel County. But a family situation forced a late move to Baltimore and he ended up at Catonsville. By the time he enrolled, however, it was too late for football.
Carter's problems were compounded when he slacked off in the classroom. His low marks were enough to ruin any chance he had of suiting up his sophomore year.
"I missed two full years of football," Carter said. "I realized I had to get my grades up to par if I wanted to show what I could do."
With his newfound focus, Carter did well enough in the classroom to become academically eligible last summer. As soon as he hit the field for practice, he showed Hambor he deserved a spot on the varsity roster.
"The first time I saw him play against another team we were in a 7-on-7 tournament. Deniko made some circus catches that were just unreal," Hambor said. "I haven't seen anyone like him in the county. Two years ago Milford Mill had a guy, Tyrek Cheeseboro, who went to Maryland. Well, Deniko is bigger, stronger and faster then him. He has no limitations."
That was last year. Now, one season removed from an All-County campaign, Carter has taken his game to another level. He's working with a personal strength coach to make up for all the weight he lost during track season. After that, he's attending training sessions to work on his route running. And, most importantly, he's intent on raising his GPA even more.
"The goal is to go D-I," Carter said. "I know what I have to do in the classroom and on the field. If I keep working like I am, I can be one of the best receivers in Baltimore, if not the state."