Every high school football program doesn't have the luxury of rostering multiple individuals at one specific position.
With limited numbers comes limited depth. Consequently, student athletes have grown accustomed to playing offense, defense, and special teams from ninth through twelfth grades.
However, very few high school pocket passers voluntarily insert themselves into the brutality of playing defense. It's a conflict of interest and increases the risk of injury.
But Salem High School senior Jahki Coates and Camden High School sophomore Deante Ruffin are no strangers to the concept. Both players utilize their prodigious frames - Coates checks in at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds and Ruffin measures at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds - to line up under center and serve as edge rushers on defense.
The two are an illustration of the challenges that transpire when competing at a smaller school. In order to establish a winning pedigree, a program must demand more out of its leaders to locate and sustain success.
Salem City competes in South Jersey Group 1 and houses only 310 students according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's 2022-2023 group classifications. Less students tends to equivalate to less availability on the gridiron.
"It is challenging, but we prepare our guys," Salem coach Montrey Wright said. "We practice at a game speed in practice so that way when we get in the game, things are slowed down for us and the guys are in a lot better condition, whether it be the linemen or receivers. It's all about coaching guys up and when their number is called in that moment having them ready to go."
Coates currently holds a pair of Division I offers from Long Island and Temple. He sees his two-way capabilities as an advantage. Naturally, the senior knows the tendencies of the quarterback position and uses his knowledge to anticipate and methodically pursue his opponent when the Rams unleash their barrage of pass rushers.
"As I'm on the defensive side, I know quarterback keys," Coates said. "I know different moves I can do at different times. "If I'm the D-end away from trips, I know (the opposing quarterback) isn't going to be paying attention to me. Certain moves will work because I don't have to actually contain him as much as I do when he's looking at me. I know if a quarterback sees a D-end take an inside release, he knows to get out the pocket."
Ruffin has reeled in offers from West Virginia and Temple. The Camden signal caller spent his freshman year at West Deptford and developed a routine for two-way duties.
"I like to keep myself available," Ruffin said. "I've played both sides my whole life. You have to read a defensive scouting report on the other team, offensive scouting report and got to know what you're doing on offense. Last year was huge for me to be able to learn how to balance both sides. A lot of it is just the love for football. I don't really enjoy not playing. Every time I'm on the field I want to make sure I give my team the best chance to win."
"He has the ability to dominate both sides of the ball," Camden coach Rob Hinson said. "He has that ability to take over a game on offense or defense. He's a special player."
And there is no shortage of targets for Ruffin.
2021 South Jersey Sports Zone Boys Basketball Rookie of the Year and 2022 Tri-County Conference Player of the Year (basketball) Jaylan Hornsby transferred from Overbrook to Camden. Hornsby possesses explosive athleticism and has the verticality to challenge defenders at the breaking point of a pass. The junior is a four-star recruit according to 247Sports and currently holds offers from Georgia, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan, Penn State and Boston College, among others.
The Panthers' loaded receiving corps is also aided by 2022 Preseason SJ Sports Zone All-South Jersey First Team selection Terron Davis, Taquan Brittingham and sophomore speedster Malik Redd. Davis tallied 29 receptions for 550 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
The Panthers defensive prowess features a pair of West Virginia commits in senior James Heard, Jr. and junior Richard James. The defensive line also features Jahmye Tyson, and the linebacking group is headlined by Tahmir Bush and Nasere Johnson-Blakney.
Brittingham, Hamin Anderson (offers from Texas A&M and Temple), Monmouth commit Israel Clark and Azir Lee lead a talented secondary.
Coates also has a full arsenal of weapons.
Junior Ramaji Bundy was named a SJ Sports Zone All-South Jersey Second Team selection in 2021 after hauling in 36 receptions for 670 yards and nine touchdowns. Senior running back Anthony Selby also emerged as a threat in the air attack hauling in 17 catches for 250 yards and four touchdowns a season ago. The senior exploded for 107 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Rams' season opener in the Battle at the Beach.
Junior Abdul Bell has also emerged as an electric playmaker with the ball in his hands. He scored on a 99-yard kickoff return and also darted for a 62-yard receiving touchdown on a screen pass in Salem's first game of the 2022 campaign.
The Rams stampeded past defending NJSIAA North Group 1 regional champ Cedar Grove, 53-13, in Ocean City last Friday. Coates accumulated 211 yards and three touchdowns through the air, in addition to rushing for 151 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The senior also tallied six total tackles on defense.
"He brings energy to the team," Wright said. "He's a four-year starter so any time you have a four-year starter the game is very slow for him. He's real detailed on the defensive side and the offensive side because he's been through it already. This year, he's got a point to prove. He's wearing things on his sleeve and he wants to be the best player in the state. It's showing in the game. He's in a lot better shape."
On the contrary, Camden ventured over 400 miles to the northwest to challenge two-time defending Ohio High School Athletic Association Division III state champion Chardon (OH) and fell short, 33-6, in the Freedom Bowl showcase in Canton, Ohio.
"It was a good learning experience for us," Hinson said. "They kind of showed us the way that things need to be done. They played some really sound, well-coached football for four quarters. I don't think they were called for a single penalty. I think it's gonna help us and bring us back down to earth a little bit."
While the two programs garnered different outcomes last weekend, both are hungry to make at statement at SHI Stadium in the coming days. The defending NJSIAA South Group 1 regional champions and Camden are slated to battle each other in the Rumble on the Raritan at Rutgers University at 4 pm on Sunday.
The Panthers know it helps to be battle-tested early on to help pave the road for a playoff run. Camden is seeking its first sectional title since 1976.
"It definitely does help (to be challenged early on)," Hinson said. "You don't have to try to ramp it up when you see what playoff football is going to be like. You get a taste of that competition in the beginning, so now you just have to take a look back at what you did against that competition and try to make that the standard throughout the season."