Lake Norman & Mooresville

Senior leads Titans with never-give-up mentality

Hopewell's Denzel Heath has what his coach, David Johnson, calls the "home-run threat."

"When he touches the ball, any play could go to the end zone," said the first-year Titans' football coach.

The senior running back has shown that kind of explosiveness on the field - he leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns - while also being one of Hopewell's top defenders as an all-conference linebacker.

"I do whatever I can to help the team win," said Heath.

The senior is a physical running back with the ability to run through his tacklers and break away for big plays.

"Once he gets into the open field, it's pretty much done," said Johnson.

Heath has 798 rushing yards this season on 117 attempts - an average of 6.8 yards per carry - to go along with nine touchdowns on the ground. He had big weeks against rival Hough, running for 163 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the Titans' 24-23 come-from-behind win before following that up with a five touchdown, 274-rushing-yard performance in a 50-26 victory over Lake Norman.

Against Mooresville last week, Heath was slowed down, as he only rushed for 22 yards on 10 carries. A right shoulder sprain led the Titan coaching staff to limit him to defense in the second half of the game.

Johnson said opponents can't afford to ignore Heath - which opens up the Titans' passing game, especially when they run the play action.

In addition to being a decoy, the 18-year-old has scored two receiving touchdowns this season and is second on the team in yards with 184 yards on 19 receptions behind his younger brother, Dominique.

Heath said the experience of playing defense helps him on offense.

"When I run the ball, I can usually picture what the defensive player is thinking before he makes the move," said Heath.

Being used to the physicality of the linebacker position has also helped Heath be more aggressive when he has the ball. He doesn't shy away from contact..

Johnson said a big reason for Heath's success is his determination.

"He's got a motor," said Johnson. "He just doesn't stop."

He explains that Heath regularly runs down plays from the opposing side of the field for a tackle. That will to never give up on a play and to make every play is what makes him excel.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder, who Johnson said was selected to the Shrine Bowl as a linebacker, admits that playing both sides of the ball wears him out, but he tries to ignore it during games.

Johnson said he gives Heath breathers whenever he needs it, although he admits his team is better off when Heath is on the field.

"He's definitely one we don't want on the sideline," said Johnson.

One big reason is that Heath is the Titans' leader, showing the team the way with his play and determination.

"On the field, when he gets it going, his teammates all follow him," said Johnson.

Heath knew the focus would be on him coming into the season, being the Titans' main running threat, following all-conference running back Dondre' Lewis-Freeman's graduation. But Heath admits his goal wasn't to put up big numbers.

"I really don't care about the stats," he said. "I just want to win."

Heath, who's being recruited by several Division I schools mostly as a linebacker, explained that his goal, as well as the team's, is to make the playoffs this year.

Having a new coach and a new spread offense, the Titans struggled to adjust. After a 41-13 win against Providence in its opening week, Hopewell lost three games in a row.

"Once we found out what each of us had to do and everything, we started playing really good," said Heath.

The Hough win, in which the Titans crawled back from a two-score deficit, gave the team a big mental boost.

"They started to believe in themselves," said Johnson.

Heath and the Titans, which are tied in fourth place in the I-Meck, face the state's No. 1 team, Mallard Creek, on Friday before closing out the season against two of the bottom teams in the conference, Vance and North Mecklenburg.

Johnson said his team is still in good position to reach the postseason.

"We have our destiny in our own hands," said Johnson. "And that's all you can ask for right now."