DALTON, Ga. - If the Dalton High School football coaching staff had any hope of keeping Brandon Dale a secret, a six-minute stretch of last week's win over Ringgold took care of that.
The senior receiver, defensive back and kick returner was instrumental in two third-quarter touchdowns during the Catamounts' 21-19 season-opening win - a portent of things to come, according to coach Matt Land.
Ahead 7-6, the Cats forced a quick three-and-out to start the second half, and Dale returned the Ringgold punt 55 yards to the 25. Three plays later, on third-and-9, he hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Cole Calfee. Later in the quarter, the score still 14-6, he took a short Calfee pass and broke two tackles on his way to a 29-yard gain that keyed another touchdown drive.
"When you've got a playmaker like Brandon, you're going to find as many ways to get him the ball, whether it's on receptions or returns or, hopefully, interceptions," Land said. "He showed the other night what he can do, and, frankly, we're counting on him to affect games that way this season."
It has been a crucial - and sometimes trying - year for Dale. Early last season he was caught in the midst of controversy when it was reported that Land had physically confronted him at halftime of a game. Though Dale and Land insist the incident was considerably overblown, it was the kind of moment that could have derailed Dale's athletic career and at the very least hurt his confidence.
Instead, he had a solid if not spectacular junior season and entered the offseason with a renewed sense of purpose. Dale hit the weights hard, and his work was rewarded with stellar showings at two football camps; he won his individual receiver competitions at both.
Suddenly, Dale's confidence started to match his ability.
"I did surprise myself," he admitted. "I knew that I had worked hard and gotten stronger, and I felt it would pay off. I believed it, but at the same time you really don't take hold of something until you see it. When I won the first camp I was surprised, but I realized this is what I had worked so hard for. Then, when I went to the Mercer camp, I expected to do well."
The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder was clocked at 4.46 and 4.48 seconds for 40 yards at the camps and is drawing interest from Jacksonville State, Eastern Kentucky, Furman and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. After having a supporting role on offense a year ago, Dale will be a featured option this season, and it has as much to do with maturation as it does with his physical abilities, according to his coach.
"Brandon has found his place on our team, and more than anything he's developed a playing maturity in knowing what's required during those six seconds where we call plays," Land said. "Most teenagers, even the ones that are arrogant and cocky, suffer from low self-esteem. His work this year was a validation of the hard work he's put in, and it showed him that he's a good player -- not a great player -- who has the chance to be a great player.
"There's no doubt in my mind he can play at the next level, and the colleges are just wanting to see how he plays with a more prominent role this year. I believe he'll get an offer within a month."
Dale said something even besides the confidence has him poised for a breakout season - something that was validated in last week's game.
"The coaches trust me out there to take care of the ball and make plays happen," he said. "They give me a lot of freedom to do that. Last week I took a punt and broke two tackles, but then I went back 5 yards and was tackled. I thought I was going to get chewed out, but Coach Land said he appreciated the effort."
The next return, of course, went for 55 yards. The secret is indeed out.