Willie Eubanks

Citadel linebacker Willie Eubanks III (9) tackles Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa last season. File/AP 

The Laney High School Wildcats' 2015 season was off to a disappointing start.

The Wildcats lost their season opener to rival Dublin, 3-0, and fans of the Augusta, Ga., school were starting to grumble about new coach Rodney McFadden.

"All the doubters came out," McFadden recalled. "They were challenging where we were, and we lost some players from the team, too."

The Wildcats asked their coach if they could hold a players-only meeting. And at the meeting, junior linebacker Willie Eubanks III spoke up.

"He challenged his own classmates and even the older kids about their effort and willingness to sacrifice for the team," McFadden said. "He got on them about some of their habits."

The Wildcats won their next game over Westminster, then won seven of their next eight, claiming the region title and advancing to the Class AAA playoffs for an 8-3 season.

"Willie is not a very vocal person," McFadden said. "But when he has something to say, people pay attention. They know it's been on his mind if he comes out and says it."

Eubanks, now a junior at The Citadel, has brought the same sort of quiet leadership to the Bulldogs. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, Eubanks was among the first players new defensive coordinator Tony Grantham identified as one of his team leaders.

Willie Eubanks

Willie Eubanks III Provided

"We put it on him early to be the leader and the bell cow of our defense," Grantham said. "And he has taken that on. I've seen him really grow from when I got here in the spring to now. It's been tremendous.

"His knowledge of the game and of what we ask him to do is great. But now we're asking him to direct the defensive line, direct the coverages in the back end. He really has a good understanding of each defense and what we want out of each play."

Eubanks also started at running back at Laney High, and once ran 85 yards for a touchdown in a playoff game. He was recruited as a running back by South Carolina State, and also had offers from Savannah State, Western Carolina and Hampton. But coach McFadden was pleased when Eubanks chose The Citadel.

"I knew that'd be a good fit for him," McFadden said. "About all you will get out of Willie is 'yes sir' and 'no sir.'"

Eubanks, who also lettered in basketball and track (he ran the 800 meters) at Laney, played in five games as a Citadel freshman in 2017, then blossomed last season into an all-conference level player.

He started all 11 games in 2018, and led the Bulldogs with 80 tackles, including 8½ for loss and 4½ sacks, with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

"Willie is a leader in his play, and is a downhill football player," said head coach Brent Thompson, whose Bulldogs open the 2019 season Saturday against Towson at Johnson Hagood Stadium. "His presence out there is like no other; he's able to see it and react to it more than anything else. He can diagnose a play, get downhill quickly and make that play."

Chosen to the preseason all-Southern Conference team, Eubanks' duties will shift a bit this season as he and transfer Airan Reed play the inside linebacker spots in Grantham's new 3-4 alignment. Reed, 6-2 and 240 pounds, was a three-year starter at Southern Illinois.

"I try to be a leader who shows more than I say," Eubanks said. "But every now and then, I have to speak up a little bit. In spring ball, I realized a lot of the older heads were gone, and it was time for me to step up and be more vocal."

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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