With the Collins Hill offense — and particularly quarterback Taylor Heinicke — putting up record-setting numbers this season, it would be easy to look at coach Kevin Reach’s squad as a one-dimensional team.
However, the defensive unit has played an equal role in the success of the Eagles (8-3) as they take a seven-game winning streak into Friday’s second round game of the Class AAAAA state playoffs at Roswell.
Collins Hill at Roswell
Grayson at North Gwinnett
Mill Creek at South Gwinnett
Norcross at Brookwood
GAC at Carver-Columbus
Callaway at Buford
Wesleyan at Athens Academy
“The defense has been playing lights out,” Eagles coach Kevin Reach said. “(Defensive coordinator Larry) Massey and I were just talking about that the other day. My (defensive) staff has done a great job. We’ve changed a few kids around, but for the most part, we just kept coaching them up. ... It’s what we expected all season of them.”
In fact, Collins Hill actually ranks higher among county teams in scoring defense (ninth, 17.4 points per game) than it does in scoring offense (29.2) after last week’s 7-3 first-round win over Woodstock.
Those numbers seem difficult to imagine, especially looking at those numbers from the first four weeks of the season.
Through the Eagles’ 1-3 start against a brutally-tough schedule that includes four teams still alive in the postseason — including state-ranked teams North Gwinnett (No. 2), Brookwood (No. 4) and Martin Luther King Jr. (No. 10) — they were giving up an average of 32.5 points per game.
Since then, the defense has yielded just 61 total points, an average of 8.7 per game, led by a senior-laden lineup led by linebackers Travis Parker and Chris Snyder, lineman Jake Banta and Dakota Conn and Shayne Charpentier in the secondary.
In fact, a third quarter field goal in last week’s win over Woodstock represents the only points the Eagles have allowed a since the fourth quarter of their 42-34 win over Mill Creek on Oct. 15, a span of a little more than four games covering 197 minutes and 20 seconds of game time.
One obvious line of demarcation for the transformation of the Collins Hill defense is a 14-10 upset of then No. 3 state-ranked Peachtree Ridge on Oct. 8 in which the Eagles held the Lions to just 10 first downs and forced three turnovers.
“Probably beating Peachtree Ridge (was the turning point),” said Parker, who leads the Eagles with 98 combined first-hit tackles and assists on the season, including 17 last Friday. “Since then, we’ve just been playing together (as a team) and trusting everyone to do their assignments.”
However, Reach goes back even further to the open date the Eagles enjoyed the week before the Peachtree Ridge game for his defense’s emergence.
After being battered and bruised in the both literal and figurative senses by the team’s difficult early-season schedule, the defense especially needed a break.
Along with a few tweaks and a little fine-tuning in personnel, the Eagles’ defense has responded.
“Having (defensive end) Sam Batiste back (healthy) has helped,” Reach said of his 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior. “We had him the first game, but he missed two games with a knee injury and wasn’t 100 percent in the others. That off week, he was able to rest it. And Travis Parker was beat up, too, and there were others.
“Jake Banta (started the season) at nose guard, but we bumped him out to a defensive end. And we’ve had more guys rolling in and out on the defensive line.”
Reach also looks to other factors that has helped the defense find itself.
“At the beginning of the year, we weren’t playing great in special teams,” Reach said. “We’re a lot better now, and it makes a difference. Instead of getting the ball near midfield or around the 40-yard line, we’re doing a better job of pinning (opponents) back and giving them a longer field.”