Longtime coach Dave Miller can rattle off names of the past in Lakes High School football like he can his own children.
Few titillate him as a group like the five linebackers he has leading the Lancers’ defense this season.
All of them — seniors Jaydon McMillon, J.J. Niuamoa and Rafi Mbuja; junior Jaedon Hall; and sophomore Devon Nofoa-Masoe — are not only returning starters, they were all-league performers in 2018.
“They work as well together as any group I’ve had,” said Miller, adding that this linebacker corps rivals that of the 2011 all-3A SPSL unit of J.J. Njoku, Charles Hall, Penoy Penilton and Dre Milton as the best during his tenure.
“They are different personalties, and have different qualities — but they feed off one another.”
McMillon is the undisputed leader. As a third-year starter at inside linebacker, and two-time, all-3A PCL selection (honorable mention in 2017, first team in 2018), his voice resonates the loudest.
On the field, he is instinctive and reliable. His 77 tackles last season far and away led the defense.
“Knowing the program like I do — my brother also played here — I take that leadership role very seriously,” McMillon said.
Right next to McMillon at strongside (“Sam”) linebacker is Hall, who is an electrifying sideline-to-sideline athlete who came into the program as a safety. He is also the team’s top wide receiver — and one of the school’s top wrestlers in the winter.
“He is so good coming downhill and leveraging outside runs,” Miller said. “He blows them up because he is so long armed … and gets so low.”
Like Hall, Mbuja — one of the school’s top baseball players — is a versatile athlete on both sides. He is an all-league tight end/wide receiver, and rotates in to play all the spots as the utility linebacker.
“I’ve played everywhere in my three years at Lakes,” said Mbuja, who made multiple starts at inside and outside linebacker last season. “I like it. It gives me something to work on every day. I keep learning more stuff.”
No player has had more offseason buzz surround him than Nofoa-Masoe, whom Miller said has the potential to leave Lakes as one of the all-time great football players.
Last season, Nofoa-Masoe started at weakside (“Will”) linebacker, but shifted inside late in the year.
He was pegged to stay inside — until he discovered a familiar face wanted to join him on the team.
That would be Niuamoa, the reigning 2A SPSL Mountain co-defensive player of the year from Washington High School.
Niuamoa and Nofoa-Masoe are half-brothers who started living in the same house over the past year.
And during the summer, Niuamoa decided to transfer to Lakes to play his final season with his sibling.
“It was actually very early in my junior year before the season started when our dad (Junior) brought it up and wanted us to come together,” Niuamoa said.
“And now we play right next to each other. When we step on the field, we let everything go and play as hard as we can.”
Niuamoa is the team’s biggest linebacker (6-0, 235), and best run-stopper in the interior.
“He reminds me more of an old-school linebacker, big and scary, and one that can actually play with the linemen,” said Nofoa-Masoe, who went back to his more natural position.
“Now we’ve got that here playing with us.”
What they have is the makings of an all-time great group.
“We are definitely something special,” McMillon said.