Shawn Murphy shoots through the middle of the line on Woodbridge’s opening play and sacks the quarterback for a 6-yard loss. The moment sets the tone for the rest of the day.
On the following two snaps, junior Shane Eller holds his ground on the right side, stopping Woodbridge for a 1-yard gain and then deflecting a pass that forces the Vikings to punt on their first possession of Saturday’s non-district game at Unity Reed.
Eller maintains the momentum on Woodbridge’s next two series. He recovers a fumble caused by teammate Cory Nokes and returns it 28 yards for a touchdown. And on the third play of the Vikings’ ensuing possession, he intercepts a pass that sets up the Lions’ third touchdown of the first quarter.
Junior Amare Campbell, the trio’s other hard-hitting member, has made no tackles yet only because Woodbridge has not run to his section of the field. But he’s still had one noteworthy moment. When a Woodbridge lineman attempts to block Campbell on a running play, Campbell slams into the lineman with such force that the lineman’s helmet flies off.
Seven plays in and the state’s best linebacker corps is off to another big start and there’s nothing Woodbridge can do.
Shutting down one is challenging enough. But all three? Not a chance. Their speed, mobility, physicality and versatility overwhelm opponents. Running up against them is like slamming into an impervious wall. They don’t budge.
Perennial powers Westfield and Colonial Forge experienced the swarm in losing to the Lions and now the Vikings feel just as helpless. The impact is that powerful.
“You can’t plan for just one of us,” Eller said.
THREE IN ONE
Murphy, Campbell and Eller stand next to each other inside the Unity Reed weight room answering questions right on cue. Their responses show how tight they are and how well they know each other and their roles. There’s no jockeying for position, no ego clashes, no battle for supremacy.
Outside of recalling a big hit, for example, they don’t track their own stats.
Instead, they defer to each other by working as a sole unit without stepping on toes.
When asked about leadership, Campbell, his hands down by his side, subtly points his index finger at Murphy. Murphy, standing between Campbell and Eller with eyes straight ahead, responds without hesitation.
A four-year starter committed to Alabama, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Murphy is the unquestioned centerpiece on defense and the most well-known name on Unity Reed’s roster. He’s as tall now as he was in middle school and received his first college offer from the University of Virginia in the fall of his freshman year. Alabama offered the following April.
He was so good that first year nationally-recognized private schools and academies like IMG, DeMatha, St. Frances, St. John’s and Good Counsel asked Murphy to join their programs. He declined, saying he wanted to stay at Unity Reed and build something there. The inquiries eventually stopped, but Murphy’s rise up the recruiting rankings did not. He is currently listed as Rivals’ top-ranked inside linebacker for the class of 2022.
Campbell and Eller are college prospects as well, but not to the same degree. The 6-2, 210-pound Campbell has offers from Maryland, Old Dominion and William & Mary.
The 5-10, 185-pound Eller, the most overlooked of the three, is still waiting for his first offer. But FCS and Division II programs have expressed interest in a player Unity Reed head coach Carroll Walker calls his “London Fletcher,’’ a reference to the undersized and undrafted linebacker who played 16 NFL seasons.
For all the attention he receives, though, Murphy prefers to share the spotlight and treat his fellow linebackers as equals. If he leads the team in tackles one game great. If he doesn’t that’s fine too.
What matters most to Murphy is that his teammates get their proper due.
“I like to open up their horizons and boost their mindsets,” Murphy said.
When Campbell announced his Maryland offer on Twitter May 25, Murphy responded by telling other colleges: “COACHES! Get at him … rising junior!”
Campbell and Eller look up to Murphy and value his opinion.
Campbell said if he made a mistake, Murphy corrected him without embarrassing him. Eller cited Murphy’s calming presence when recalling how nervous he felt going into his first scrimmage as a Unity Reed freshman. Murphy reminded Eller he was a competitor. So go out and compete.
By teaching and encouraging Eller and Campbell, Murphy built up their confidence. They listen to him because he knows what he’s talking about and he shares what he’s learned from others, including fellow national recruits he’s faced at camps.
“It’s who he is,” Eller said. “He’s respected.”
The three have known each other since their youth days competing with the Manassas Mutiny and competing against each other in middle school (Campbell played at Metz, Eller at Parkside and Murphy at Bull Run).
When Eller and Campbell arrived at Unity Reed as freshmen, Murphy had no doubts they would play alongside him as starting linebackers.
“It’s a really great feeling,” Eller said. “He’s not selfish. I’ve been to camps where you see some of the players acting selfishly. To have a great prospect here to mentor you means everything.”
Unity Reed entered this season hitting the reset button.
The Lions finished 1-4 last season for a number of reasons. Injuries played a part, particularly the loss of safety Marquez Davis, who broke his leg during basketball season. With only a varsity team, Unity Reed lacked depth. And without a true quarterback, the Lions also struggled on offense.
The pandemic didn’t help either, causing disruptions that hampered efforts to create stability amidst a compressed schedule in the spring.
But in the offseason, the team, led in part by the linebackers, regrouped. The three constantly talked to each other and when schedules allowed met at Gainesville Middle School to work out over the summer. They performed linebacker drills and tested themselves against a college quarterback and a college running back (Stonewall Jackson graduate and Morgan State’s Cam Brown) to improve their technique.
They also encouraged teammates to join them as well.
“Those guys worked hard,” Walker said. “I’m proud of those kids. They come to play. They have no problem competing.”
There are other factors behind Unity Reed’s 3-0 start going into Friday’s 7 p.m. game at Freedom (2-1).
The addition of Battlefield transfer Blake Moore at quarterback allows the offense to open up more and take pressure off the defense from carrying the load.
The returning group of defensive starters includes senior strong safety Sean Scott, a second-team, all-district selection last season.
And then there’s the return of Davis to the lineup at free safety. Davis gives an already stout defense another fast, aggressive player capable of creating chaos alongside the linebackers.
The combination is why the Lions play a 3-3-5 defense, something they’ve used at least since Eller and Campbell’s freshman year when the Lions went 8-3 in 2019 and featured defensive lineman Tyleik Williams, now an Ohio State freshman.
Teams don’t use that scheme often, but if they do it means they have the type of linebackers and secondary who can fly to the ball and disrupt an offense’s flow in a heartbeat.
The three-man front of Nokes, Javion Hainey and Sean Johnson are all first-year starters. Their primary job is to create gaps for the linebackers and secondary to pursue the quarterback or ball carrier. Sometimes the linebackers remain behind the defensive linemen. Other times, they move to the edge.
The alignment has made an immediate impact this fall.
In Unity Reed’s season opener against Westfield, Campbell, Murphy and Eller combined for 22 tackles, including five for loss and a fumble recovery in the 20-14 victory.
The next week at Colonial Forge, Campbell and Eller dominated as the Eagles tried to negate Murphy.
Campbell totaled a team-high 12 tackles, including two for loss, while Eller finished with 11.5 tackles, including five for loss, a half a sack and one fumble recovery. The Lions caused four first-half turnovers en route to a 22-7 win.
“It wasn’t so much a challenge to game plan against them, but you have to execute,” Colonial Forge head coach John Brown said. “[The linebackers] make you miss and can make you wrong in a hurry.”
Brown praised each of Unity Reed’s linebackers.
“[Murphy] is the difference maker. He’s a very good football player and it’s obvious even watching on film why he’s one of the top-rated linebackers in the country,” Brown said. “[Campbell] is just as good. The only reason he’s not a national recruit is his height, but he’s just as good as [Murphy]. The forgotten man is [Eller]. He thrives in physicality. They got after the ball and that’s why their defense is so good.”
MORE OF THE SAME
The second half against Woodbridge picks up where the first half left off. Eller causes a fumble on each of the Vikings’ first two possessions, including one off his sack. Unity Reed needs these turnovers as its offense struggles. Under constant pressure, Moore throws back-to-back interceptions and finishes the game with four.
In the fourth quarter, the Lions record their final touchdown. The play starts with Davis lined up behind Murphy on the left side deep in Woodbridge territory. Murphy comes off the edge first and makes a beeline toward the running back. The Woodbridge quarterback and running back mistime the handoff and the ball drops to the ground. Davis pounces on the loose ball at the 2 -yard line and runs it into the end zone. Unity Reed wins 28-7.
Although Murphy did not force the fumble directly, his presence is felt.
It’s the type of impact Unity Reed expects from Murphy, Eller and Campbell. And it’s the type of impact they expect of themselves.
“They are great players,” Davis said of the linebackers. “They are hard hitters and when they make plays it amps the defense up.”
After the game, the three linebackers catch up in front of Murphy and Campbell’s lockers. They compare notes and playfully see who had the biggest moment. They mention the Woodbridge lineman’s helmet flying off when he attempts to block Campbell. There’s Murphy’s sack on the game’s first play. They acknowledge Eller’s sack at the start of the third quarter as well. So much to choose from.
After spending a few minutes sharing, they are done. They pack their stuff away and leave for the day. There’s nothing else to talk about. They’ve done their job and there’s only thing left.
“It’s on to the next game,” Eller said.