Sabres coach Rocky White knew he had a pretty special talent on his hands when Stephen Griffin arrived for his first practice at South Meck.
Griffin had transferred from Tabb High School in Yorktown, Va., to the school where his father, Steve, had unanimously won the 1981 Associated Press N.C. Player of the Year award after leading the Sabres to an undefeated state championship while rushing for 1,671 yards and adding 207 receiving yards and 24 TDs.
But Griffin wasn’t a running back – instead a strapping 6-foot-3, 185-pound safety who already possessed sick on-ball skills and was drawing the attention of college recruiters.
White penciled Griffin into his secondary, immediately making that one of the Sabres’ strongest units.
“On defense, you don’t find a lot of guys that can be run stoppers and pass defenders and he has the ability to do both,” White said. “The thing that really separates him from most folks is he’s 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, he bench presses 305 pounds, he’s close to a 500-pound squatter so he’s a big guy so that’s obviously impressive. He can be a run stopper but can also cover real well.”
That part was obvious to White from the beginning. But when the Sabres began last season, it also was quickly apparent that they needed to go in a different direction at quarterback and find ways to get the ball in Griffin’s capable hands as much as possible.
“We learned pretty quickly that we needed to put the ball in our best offensive player’s hands and it didn’t take us long to figure out that was him,” White said. “We really didn’t know how he’d respond when we put him at quarterback and he’d never played there at all, but you could see him grow every day, not only developing the confidence but also relishing in the challenge of it. That’s what we liked about him.”
Griffin said he’d never played quarterback at any level, but he was up for the challenge.
“I stepped in and tried to do as much as I could for my team,” he said. “They asked me to play quarterback and of course I was more than willing to do it to help my team. I just tried to do a good job, make some plays and help my team as much as possible.
“At times it was tough, though. Passing the ball was the toughest thing, but I tried my best and made the most of the situation. It was a little bit frustrating at times, but it’s fun and you get the ball every play and have all of the action go through you.”
Griffin shined individually running the Sabres offense. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes during the last four games and overall threw for 565 yards and three scores and ran for 543 yards and three TDs while taking his first-ever snaps under center.
“He’s a quiet young man, but he accepts challenges readily. He jumped in there and never backed down,” White said. “He worked really hard at it. It was good for him to be put in a situation like that and it was a pleasure for us as coaches to see him embrace the challenge and put in the work to make himself a pretty doggone good quarterback.”
While Griffin will again spend time at quarterback this fall for the Sabres as they’ll look to feed him the ball whenever possible, it’s his work on the defensive side of the ball that’s awarded him a scholarship to the University of Tennessee – Griffin chose the Vols over more than 10 other offers – and has White most excited.
“He has that great size, speed and great instincts,” White said. “That’s what the recruiters loved right off the bat about him. When you see Stephen, he’s got long arms, got room to grow and is just an impressive young man all the way around.”
Griffin, who is coming off a defensive season in which he recorded 80 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles, said he’s looking forward to a big senior year, especially if it means he can do something that he’s never done during his already distinguished career.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to make the playoffs because I’ve never been on a winning team my whole high school career,” he said. “Before I moved here, even, I’ve never been on a winning team so I want to go to the playoffs and see what it’s like to be in the postseason.
“It’s frustrating for any team to have a losing record, but I think we can turn it around this year. We have a good team and we know what we can do. We know we have a lot of potential, but potential doesn’t mean anything until you do something with it, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
And with Griffin leading a host of skill players with considerable talent and upside, the Sabres will look to take the next step in White’s third season and compete for a spot among the So. Meck 8’s upper echelon of teams.
With Griffin determined to lead the Sabres for their final season and on a mission for a winning season, White can see a more urgent sense from his star.
“He’s done a really good job letting his actions talk for him, but he’s been a lot more energetic,” White said. “He’s continuing to grow as a player and as a young man. I’m proud of him, I really am.”
But to close his career in style, Griffin would love nothing more than to check the final goal off his list.
“We want to do what we can. We don’t have a lot of people believing in us, but we have ourselves and that’s all that we need – our team and our family,” Griffin said. “I haven’t really made it or done anything yet. I’m focused on the school year, on doing as much as I can to help this team so that we can be the best.”