BRANDYWINE – Gwynn Park High School quarterback Elyjah Mitchell likes being tested.
The sophomore said he enjoys being pressured in the pocket, especially when he is ready to launch a deep ball.
In one of his final throws during a morning practice against his teammates, Mitchell took the snap and quickly surveyed the field. A defender broke through and looked to have a good practice sack. Instead, Mitchell stepped forward, evaded the sack and threw the ball more than 40 yards down the field to find a wide receiver for a touchdown.
“He’s got a rocket arm,” Head Coach Danny Hayes said. “He is very smart in what he does, and he can also run the football. Even though he is coming up from junior varsity, it seems he has been playing varsity all this time.”
Mitchell is a part of a revamped Yellow Jackets roster that brings a wealth of experience and new attitude into the season. With Hayes back at the helm and a new offensive coordinator, Gwynn Park looks to make its presence known as it looks to get back to the state playoffs.
Last year’s 5-4 record stunned many high school football observers after Gwynn Park’s state finals appearance in the year prior.
The Yellow Jackets still had a chance to make the playoffs during the final game of the season but were defeated by Suitland, missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2014. It is only the second time they missed the playoffs in 18 years.
“They have been in the weight room since December; these kids are not used to not being in the playoffs,” Hayes said. “But now, the kids are very hyped and ready to get back into the playoffs and very excited to start the season.”
Coming into this season, Hayes started fresh, bringing over his junior varsity Head Coach Richard Mozier as the offensive coordinator after an 8-2 record last season.
His relationship with Mitchell will be necessary as the Yellow Jackets look to give the keys to the offense to the sophomore as they move on from last year’s starter Kamari Brown.
“It is an accomplishment,” Mitchell said. “It means all the hard work is paying off, but still the grind never stops and I got to put in more work.”
Alongside changes at quarterback comes the need of a new running back after the departure of Wynton Townsend. He was the centerpiece of the rushing attack while being a good option as a receiver as well.
His best game came as he scored two touchdowns, rushed for 74 yards on six carries and made two catches for 53 yards in Gwynn Park’s win over Northwestern on Oct. 12.
Taking over will be Kejuan Shelby, a five-foot-nine, 163-pound senior who missed out on playing last season. Adding to the offense is the return of wide receivers Dominique Foxworth and Omarion Wood, who plan to add experience to a young offense.
Meanwhile, the unit that has Hayes excited the most is the defense. After surrounding 153 points last year, Hayes said that this year’s defense comes more prepared and ready to show itself as the fastest defense in the county.
“We are built on speed,” Hayes said.
Most of the speed will be coming from the linebacker core, led by senior outside linebacker Jalyn Reynolds. The 6-foot-1 star already has college offers from Delaware State and Temple but is looking forward to being a part of a restructured defense focused on getting at the quarterback.
Added to the linebacker core is transfer Robert Caldwell, a 5-foot-11, 232-pound senior coming over from St. Mary’s Ryken High School.
In four games last year for the Knights, he finished with five tackles but did not experience more playing time. Moving into a new environment at Gwynn Park, in a leadership role and being welcomed with open arms is motivating, Caldwell said.
“The team is doing good, but the defense is looking really good,” Caldwell said. “I do not see anybody being us because our front seven is deadly.”
The ruthlessness of the defense has been critical in the growth of Mitchell and the offense, assuring that the Yellow Jackets will become a more prepared team heading into this season.
“This defense is very intense,” Shelby said. “I am not going to lie, and this defense is very intense; we go at it every day, and we give it our all, and they give it their all, and nobody gives up.”
Also new with the Yellow Jackets this season is its classification. Because its enrollment numbers dropped in recent years, Gwynn Park will play in the 1A division. However, there will be no change on how the team operates, Hayes said. So far this year, his varsity roster is already 40-42 players deep, a “low number” that he expects them to surpass with ease.
While players and coaches are earmarking opponents on who will they will look forward to playing against, Hayes hopes to see success in every game to bring Gwynn Park back to greatness. The march to a state title begins on Sept. 6 at home against St. Charles from Waldorf.
“We are all hungry, and we are pushing for the same goal,” Mitchell said. “We want to make sure we send our seniors out on a good ride with a ring on their finger.”