The Willingboro coaching staff knew all about Cedar Creek senior Malachi “Max” Melton and how he is one of the top defensive backs in South Jersey. Imagine their surprise, however, when in the season opener they saw No. 16 coming off the edge as a defensive end and wrecking havoc in the backfield.

When you have a superior athlete like Melton, why not use him as sort of a Swiss Army knife on defense? Pirates coach Tim Watson is a smart skipper, and that’s exactly what he did all season with the best player on his roster, using Melton as a defensive end, outside linebacker and defensive back. Basically, depending on the matchup, Watson wanted Melton to be in the best position to make the most plays, and the results were impressive.

Glory Days Magazine’s Defensive Player of the Year finished with 68 tackles, including 43 of the solo variety, and a school record 33 tackles for loss. He also added seven sacks, four interceptions, 11 pass break-ups, two defensive touchdowns — and, just for good measure, a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns. Not only was Melton a force on defense, he got the job done offensively, too, rushing for more than 200 yards and adding 800 receiving yards on 63 receptions. He scored seven receiving touchdowns and one rushing, and his one pass completion went for a 66-yard touchdown.

“He made some big plays. He had 33 tackles for loss, which is by far a record for us. He had seven in the first game against Willingboro and that’s when we said, ‘this might be the move with him.’ We knew they were huge and had 6-foot-5, 300-pound tackles so we said what if we put him out there and let him disrupt off the edge? It ended up working out really well and threw off their game plan,” Watson said. “He was probably the biggest reason we were able to get that win. In that game we played Manny Reid at corner, too, and had kind of a ‘NASCAR’ package where we had superior athletes getting pressure off the edge. Then we had the ‘Busch Series’ package with Malachi and one of our traditional outside linebackers, and that turned into our base defense.”

“I expected to have a pretty good impact. My positions changed, but coach Watson put me in the perfect position to make plays, and with the opportunity I had, I just took it and I had some tackles for loss. I even had some interceptions, almost as much as a defensive back would have, so there’s nothing to complain about there. I just went out there to have fun,” said Melton, who originally gave a verbal commitment to Purdue University but switched to Rutgers recently after the hire of new coach Greg Schiano. “It was different, but it was really fun. I got to hit people more, but I still got to drop back into coverage like a defensive back would. All the things I love to do at DB, I got to do at linebacker. I know every position pretty well and when we were preparing for teams our coaches would put us in the best position. So they would tell me, ‘OK, we might move you here, you might be safety or outside linebacker.’ Whatever the deal was with the team we were playing, and I was always prepared to play any position.”

It’s no coincidence that Cedar Creek played in a sectional championship with a Melton on the roster. Malachi’s older brothers, Gary Jr. and Bo, each played in one but lost to West Deptford. This time around, Malachi was able to lead the Pirates past Camden in the Central Jersey Group 2 championship game, and a 10-win season. He knows he’ll always be mentioned in the same breath as Gary Jr. and Bo, who he’ll join next year as a teammate at Rutgers, but that’s just fine with him. His parents, Vicky and Gary Sr., also were outstanding athletes at Rutgers and the Meltons have become sort of the first family of Cedar Creek football.

“I think that is what makes him who he is. He had a ton of expectations and pressure, and sometimes that stuff can get to it. But if you’re mentally strong enough you can ignore it and focus on your own game. He felt it a little bit his junior year, and this year nothing changed in terms of the type of competition we were playing, but he came into this year with a chip on his shoulder. In all those games we played, he would be one of those guys where you’d say he’s one of the best players on the field today. And that’s saying something because we played some really talented teams,” Watson said. “He made some key plays in big games that he wasn’t really doing his junior year. He really came into his own and wrote his own story. He wasn’t Bo Melton’s little brother anymore, he wasn’t Vicky and Gary Melton’s son, the ex-Rutgers stars — he became Malachi Melton and wrote his own story, and that was awesome to see.”

“I’ve never really thought about that. I go out there and play my own game. I know I play like my brothers, and like my parents in certain ways. I know it’s going to be pointed out here and there but that doesn’t bother me. I’m proud of that,” Melton said. “I felt it in the games whenever I made a big hit or scored a touchdown, I definitely felt like I was my own person out there.”

Melton made plenty of big hits and scored a lot of touchdowns while leading the Pirates to a championship season, which was a big focus of the team after Cedar Creek went 4-5 a year ago and got blown out by Pleasantville in the opening round of the state playoffs.

“Coming into this season we were talking about ‘The Greatness Getback’ and talking about getting back to the championship, and we were laughed at a lot. Everybody knew we had a great senior class that had graduated and that our team was going to be very young, so for us to be so young and be talking about a championship, nobody believed us,” Melton said. “But we went out there, played our hearts out, stuck to the game plan and showed everyone what we could do. We did that all season long. I’m proud of our young guys because we had a lot of sophomores out there but they all brought it every week and gave 100 percent.”

Melton will be getting an early start on his Big Ten football career as he graduated high school early and plans to enroll at Rutgers this month, and he said he’s more than ready for the next challenge.

“(This season) was great. I think the best part about it was seeing all my guys happy and seeing that the young guys on this team now know what it takes to get there, and they can carry that into next season. That was the best feeling for me, playing with dudes I’ve been playing with for years, like Louie (Barrios). It just felt great knowing that everybody bought in, from the fans to the coaches to the players,” he said. “I can’t wait to be playing at the next level in the Big Ten, it doesn’t really get better than that. I can’t wait to get up there and show what I can do on the next level.”

OTHER DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR NOMINEES:

Isaiah Raikes, St. Augustine Prep, DL: The Texas A&M recruit and 300-pounder faced a constant stream of double and sometimes triple team blocking schemes from opposing offensive lines, but still managed to have an outstanding season. He helped lead the Hermits to seven wins and a spot in the state semifinals, and was one of the most dominant defensive linemen in South Jersey.

Drew DeMorat, Mainland Regional, LB: DeMorat was all over the field every game for the Mustangs and continuously made big plays for a team that went 10-1 and registered its second straight West Jersey Football League Independence Division championship. After back-to-back 1-9 seasons when DeMorat was a freshman and sophomore, he’s helped lead one of the more impressive turnarounds in South Jersey the past two years, as Mainland has won 19 games during that span.

Brandon Batz, Mainland Regional, DB: One of the smartest safeties in the West Jersey Football League, Batz combined experience and toughness to become a defender that not only had to be accounted for in the passing game, but also made a huge impact in run support.

Chase Lomax, St. Joseph, DL/LB: Still just a junior, Lomax anchored a very good front seven for the Wildcats and helped lead his team into the state championship game for the third straight year.

Corey Yeoman, Atlantic City, LB: The Vikings struggled in the win/loss category, but Yeoman is a superior athlete who helped keep his team in games every week. He also took on a heavy load as the team’s starting quarterback.

Brian Beckmann, Ocean City, DB: The heart and soul of the Red Raiders’ defense, Beckmann is the true definition of a “gamer” and helped lead his team to its most successful season under current coach Kevin Smith, as the Red Raiders made it all the way to the sectional championship before falling to Shawnee.

Ernest Howard, Pleasantville, LB: Not only the captain and emotional leader of a team that made its second straight appearance in the sectional semifinals, Howard was one of the top linebackers in South Jersey. Read more about him in our feature on Page 26.

Ahmad Brown, Holy Spirit, LB/DB: Brown was the only two-way player on the Spartans’ roster, and his grit and toughness helped Holy Spirit navigate a very tough schedule. He shined in the playoffs, leading the Spartans to a state championship that included a shutout over St. Joseph in the title game.

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