Merritt taps into big-time talent

Sherwood ran rampant through their opponents in 2008, going a perfect 14-0 en route to the 4A state championship. They finished the year ranked No. 1 in Maryland and No. 87 in the country. But the Warriors were a senior-laden squad, and the core of that team will be missing in 2009. Not to mention the program lost one of the best coaches in Maryland when Al Thomas retired after winning a third state championship (his first at Sherwood).
But new 31-year-old coach Pat Cilento - who was promoted from offensive coordinator - won't utter the "r" word. No, Sherwood isn't rebuilding - not with rising stars like cornerback Jamal Merritt coming back.
Merritt, at 6-feet-1 and 195 pounds, has all the physical tools Division-I schools are looking for. He hits like a linebacker, he jams receivers like Hines Ward and his coverage skills are already among the best in his class. Last season, he had 43 tackles and 12 pass breakups in just 10 games. What's more? He's only a sophomore.
"He's only been playing football for two years," Cilento said. "He's only going to get better."
Merritt started out last season on the bench, but four games in the underclassmen forced his way into the starting lineup. He took the place of an upperclassman, which doesn't usually sit well with veteran teammates. But Merritt fit it right away.
"All the upperclassmen I've known since pound ball," Merritt said. "The chemistry of playing with each other was already there."
The chemistry may have been there, but could a sophomore step up and make plays? It didn't take long to find out. Against Quince Orchard in Week 7, the opposing quarterback, Pepper Coe, tried to run a bootleg on fourth-and-goal. Merritt came flying in and dropped Coe before he could break the plane, a crucial play in a 14-6 victory.
"I do what it takes to win games," Merritt said. "I don't let anything hold me back."
That wasn't the only key stop Merritt made. Later in the contest, Quince Orchard tried a pass into the end zone for the tying score. But Merritt made a lunge for the ball and knocked it away at the last second. In the state championship game against Linganore, Merritt helped stall a third-quarter drive by diving under a pile for a momentum-killing fumble recovery. Plays like that established Merritt as a clutch performer.
"He makes big plays all the time," Cilento said. "He's a big, tough, physical guy like Chris McAllister. He's always around the ball."
One time, Cilento even let Merritt make a play at wide receiver. Merritt, who rarely even practiced with the offense, ran a simple fly route during the Gaithersburg game. He beat his man and corralled a 37-yard touchdown catch.
"The coach told me he'd give me one play," Merritt said. "And the quarterback gave me a beautiful pass and I caught it for a touchdown."
Merritt won't be seeing much time at wideout, however. He's got to concentrate on being a better defensive back. Merritt's coverage skills are solid for a sophomore, but they are still a work in progress, according to Cilento. Merrit says he needs to work on his breaks off the ball, his footwork and route recognition, in addition to his speed and strength. There were several occasions last season when he let a receiver get behind him. In the aforementioned Quince Orchard game, he surrendered a couple of big pass plays when he misread a route.
"He just needs more playing time," Cilento said. "He needs to develop his football IQ."
Merritt also has a rather pedestrian (for cornerbacks) 4.7 40-yard dash time. That must improve if he wants to establish himself as a surefire Division-I prospect. However, Cilento points to Merritt's quickness and ability to cover ground, which makes up for his lack of pure speed. At the Nike Baltimore Combine back in March, he tied for the fastest shuttle time with a 4.1.
"He takes long strides," Cilento said. "For every one stride he takes, the receiver has to take two."
This offeseason, besides concentrating on game film and breaking down routes, Merritt is attending several developmental camps and performance combines. At the National Underclassmen Combine and the Nike Combine, he'll test his coverage skills against the elite receivers in his class. Physically, he's doing leg work in the weight room in order to cut down on his 40-yard-dash time.
A bigger, faster, smarter Merritt will certainly put opponents on edge - and bring out the recruiters. Temple and Maryland have already shown interest (Temple invited him to their camp), but a stellar junior season will solidify Merritt as a top-flight prospect.
"I would love to go to a school like Michigan, Penn Sate, USC, Oregon," said Merritt as he mused over playing in front of 60,000 screaming Trojans fans. "Yeah, a school like that."
Big-time dreams for a big-time player.