By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Yaier Hinton spent every game of his high school football career working himself into a full lather, snarling, hooting, hollering, basically hyping himself up to go out onto the field and wreck people. He wanted to hit, and get hit. He wanted to feel that collision. Needed to feel it.
Part of all that display of emotion is just being a middle linebacker. They are a different breed, as any football coach will tell you. But another part was the football field being not only Hinton’s sanctuary, but also the place where he could unleash some of his frustrations, pain and emotion.
During Hinton’s freshman year of high school, when he lived in North Carolina, Hinton’s older brother, Daniel, was shot and killed when a New Year’s Eve party turned deadly. Daniel was just 18 years old.
Hinton was kind of skinny as a younger player, but always had some serious raw athletic talent. When he got to Oakcrest as a sophomore, he began to eat better and had a voracious appetite for lifting weights and becoming more imposing physically. All that hard work in the weight room turned him into one of the hardest hitting and best middle linebackers in the West Jersey Football League this year as he helped lead the Falcons to a 6-4 record.
“I started eating better and getting my body in better shape. My theory is you have to go all in or all out, and I give it my all every time. That mentality came after my brother passed away in 2013 on New Year’s. After my brother passed, I had a whole new motor. It was like a second gear I could kick into and never come out of. When he got killed, that just made me strive harder for myself, and everything I do, I do for him,” Hinton said. “I think about him 24/7. He’s like a mom in my head. He’s my motivator. All I can think about is to make him proud. All he ever wanted me to do was ball out, go to college and make my mom proud. That situation gave me a lot of perspective on life and how I should carry myself better, both on and off the field.”
“He’s kind of an animal, in a good way. He gets crazy during pregame and doesn’t really calm down until the end of the game, so we just sent him out there and let him do his thing,” said Eric Anderson, who was in his first year as the Falcons’ head coach this year but had coached Hinton the past couple of years as an assistant to Chuck Smith, who took over at Mainland prior to this season. “He came to us during his sophomore season when he moved up from North Carolina. He was a little bit thinner and shorter back then, but the motor and intensity was there. He’s given us everything we could have asked for. You can’t really ask for more. As tenacious as he is on the field, he brought it every down. And he has that sideline-to-sideline speed that you can’t really teach. If you run to the outside, he has the ability to run you down.”
Hinton’s combination of size (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) and speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash) made him a nightmare for opposing offenses. He had the size and strength to stuff runs up the middle, but also had the speed to chase down running backs and quarterbacks if they thought running to the outside was the answer. He ran like a safety and hit like a linebacker. Ocean City quarterback Andrew Donoghue said he was a matchup problem, to put it mildly. The Falcons blanked Donoghue’s Red Raiders, 35-0, in the season opener.
“He’s a great player. He worked hard and that translates to the field. I was hearing his name all over the place,: he said. “When we run, say, a run-pass option where I have to read the middle linebacker and I have the option to run it or pass it based on what he does — when he’s fast enough to drop back and cover the guy who is running the route but also be able to jump up and stop a running play, that’s hard to account for and that kind of beats the offense.
“I didn’t get hit by him much during that game. But when you do, you definitely feel it. He’s a playmaker,” Donoghue added. “It’s the combination (of speed and power) and his athletic ability. For a high school kid, he was above average compared to the rest of the guys on the field. You had to put two guys on him to try to stop him.”
He made an incredible hit on a Mainland running back during a game this year, timing the snap perfectly before rushing into the backfield, forcing a fumble, scooping up the loose ball and racing about 45 yards for a touchdown. His Hudl highlight tape is filled with plays where Hinton is blowing up plays in the backfield or forcing fumbles. As a junior, Hinton registered more than 125 tackles, had nine sacks and forced six fumbles, and he had another 100-plus tackles as a senior.
The Falcons’ coaching staff was wondering how they would fill the void left in 2013 by the graduation of Brandon Bell, who now is one of the best college linebackers in the country at Penn State University. But Hinton stepped right in and kept up Oakcrest’s strong tradition of solid linebacker play.
“You have to have a little bit of crazy in you to play middle linebacker. You have to have a lot of heart,” Hinton said. “Coming into my sophomore year, Brandon Bell told me I had to go big or go home. Coming in after Brandon, my coaches were telling me I could be pretty good at middle linebacker. My mentality was to break Brandon’s record (for single-season tackles) and be bigger and better than he was. That was pretty hard to do, but I actually broke his record my junior year.”
“What you see on game night is what you see 24/7. He’s always on. He brings it in practice just like he brings it during the game. There’s no in-between with him. I’m sure it’s somewhat intimidating (to the younger guys) because he’s always yelling and screaming, waving his arms and going crazy. He brings that energy,” Anderson said. “Once he finally figured out really how to watch film and trust his read — those were the two main things with him — I think that really helped him out as far as improving his play and stepping it up to the next level.”
Hinton said he expected the Falcons to be able to compete for a state championship this year with talented players such as four-year starting quarterback Kendall Elliott, linemen Armani and Armand Duren, wide receiver Yahsyn McKee and others, but tough losses to Highland and Cedar Creek late in the season kept Oakcrest out of the playoffs. Still, Hinton feels like this year’s senior class laid the ground work for some big things to come.
“This season went well, but I expected us to go all the way. Coming into this year, as a senior, all I wanted to do was make my family proud and help make the younger guys better than they were when they came here,” Hinton said. “When I came here sophomore year, Kendall and I became best friends. We knew senior year was going to be our year, so we did everything in our power to put on and provide (an example) for the younger players who are going to grow throughout the years. I feel like I made a pretty good impact.”
Hinton believes he can be a college football player, and has drawn a lot of interest. He said he’d love to continue playing college football with his buddy Elliott. No matter what happens down the road, he said he’ll have fond memories of Oakcrest. And whatever college wants to take a chance on him, they’ll get a player who will do whatever it takes to win, he said.
“I think what I’ll remember most is just me flying through the holes and making tackles, and just going beast mode. It’s an awesome feeling (when you make a big hit). That just makes me want go harder and aspire to do more and more,” he said. “I’ll play anywhere a college wants me to, offense or defense. I just want to ball out to the best of my abilities.
“I don’t know that we can replace him,” Anderson said. “There are certain guys you just can’t replace, you just have to hope you can get somebody in there who can do a great job as well.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN