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North's little-known defense has grown up
Bulldogs have gone from liability to strength

Zach Humphrey, Chandler Cross, Trey Sims.

If you're not familiar with the North Gwinnett football team, then you've probably never heard of those three players, much less any of the other eight on the Bulldogs' defense.

The group doesn't have a star player like Peachtree Ridge's Kevin Minter or Norcross' Prince Kent. None of them make weekly headlines or are among the county defensive statistical leaders.

But as a unit they've become one of the top defenses in the area and have the Bulldogs poised for another deep playoff run. North (9-2) hosts Lassiter (9-2) Friday in the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.

"I know we're not the defense that everyone talks about each week like Peachtree Ridge," North linebacker Chandler Cross said. "I like being the underdog and proving ourselves."

The Bulldogs' defense is a stark contrast to last year's team. The unit doesn't have the big names like last year's D.

There's not a guy like Eric Eberhardt, the Daily Post's Defensive Player of the Year, who led the county in sacks. Or a Division I prospect like Robert Pritchard, who signed with Central Florida. Or a playmaking corner like Marquese Quilles, who had a county-leading seven interceptions and seven blocked kicks.

"We don't have as many Division I or I-AA kids, but we're just a bunch a kids that play hard every week," Cross said. "When people look at us they think we don't stand a chance, but I think it's our speed that makes up for everything."

What the Bulldogs do have is a bunch a skill position players, that may lack size, but have tremendous speed. There are five seniors who were primarily back-ups last season, but have developed in the program. Then there are five juniors who have played better than anyone imagined.

Only Humphrey, the team's lone returning starter, played significantly last season. The senior leads the team in tackles with 91 stops and has two interceptions. Cross has 74 tackles and 31/2 sacks and Sims has collected 54 tackles and three sacks.

"Physically we're not as big, but we still have that same intensity as last year's team," Cross said. "There were so many leaders on that team that we had some big shoes to fill."

With North losing 10 starters off last year's defense that reached the Class AAAAA state finals, there were a lot of question marks concerning the defense. Who would step up? How long would it take for the defense to grow up? Would the unit be a liability or a strength?

A lot of those questions were answered in the first game of the season. Against Byrnes (S.C.), the No. 1 team in the nation at the time according to USA Today, the defense kept North in the game. It wasn't until late in the game that Byrnes added a couple of touchdowns to make the 36-21 score not look as close as the game actually was.

"We didn't know if we had anybody that would step up," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. "I felt good after that Byrnes game, seeing them play as a unit. Even though we didn't win the game, they gave great effort and gave us a chance to win."

The following week, North held Brookwood to just three points and got the first of three shutouts this season the following week.

Only one team has scored more than 20 points on North since the Byrnes game as the Bulldogs are holding opponents to 13 points a game.

"I think it was that Brookwood game that we came together and started to gel," Cross said. "We've grown up a lot."

Much of the limelight goes to North's spread offense and with so many virtual unknowns on defense, Sphire has dubbed the unit the No Name Defense. It was a moniker used to describe the 1972 Miami Dolphins defense that featured several big names on offense, but not a single household name on defense. That year the Dolphins won the Super Bowl thanks to their stingy defense.

Sphire would love to see his once inexperienced defense do what last year's defense did in its four playoff wins.

"This year's defense is not the same as last year's in terms of college looks, but we've played a tremendous schedule," Sphire said. "Take away the Byrnes loss and we have only one loss to a Georgia team. But the proof is really in the pudding on far we go in the playoffs."

SideBar: Dog Pound

Here's a look at North's defensive starters and their production this season. The Bulldogs are allowing 13 points per game this season and have three shutouts.

Pos. Name Grade

· DE John Gibson, Jr.

35 tackles, 5 tackles for losses and 31/2 sacks

· DE Ayo Ojoloa, Jr.

36 tackles, 3 tackles for losses, 1 sack

· NG Don Moon, Sr.

39 tackles, 5 tackles for losses, 3 sacks

· LB Warren Roberts, Sr.

87 tackles, 13 tackles for losses

· LB David Park, Jr.

37 tackles, 5 tackles for losses, 2 sacks

· LB Chandler Cross, Sr.

74 tackles, 6 tackles for losses, 31/2 sacks

· Rov Trey Sims, Jr.

54 tackles, 9 tackles for losses, 6 sacks, 3 pass break ups

· CB Robert Nelson, Sr.

21 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 2 INTs, 1 sack

· CB Michael Turner, Sr.

28 tackles, 2 pass breakups

· S Zach Humphrey, Sr.

91 tackles, 9 tackles for losses, 2 INTs, 1 sack

· S Will Compton, Jr.

52 tackles, 5 tackles for losses, 3 pass breakups