Grayson, North tote tough defenses into Suwanee showdown

When Bob Sphire watches film of Grayson’s defense, there’s one player who quickly stands out.

“No. 90 is an unbelievable talent,” the North Gwinnett head coach said.


• Who: Grayson Rams (8-AAAAA) at North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAA)

• When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

• Where: North Gwinnett High School (From I-85, go west on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road until it becomes Suwanee Dam Road. School is on the right)

• Coaches: Mickey Conn, Grayson; Bob Sphire, North

• Records: Grayson 8-3; North 11-0

• Last week: Grayson beat North Forsyth 31-0; North beat Lassiter 56-7

• Winner plays: McEachern-Valdosta winner

• Grayson Leaders:

Rushing: Korey Jones, 420 yards

Passing: Nick Schuessler, 1,330 yards

Receiving: Garrett Horne, 327 yards

Tackles: Michael Peek, 90

Interceptions: Peek, 3

• North Gwinnett Leaders:

Rushing: C.J. Uzomah, 535 yards

Passing: Scotty Hosch, 866 yards

Receiving: Tyler Nemec, 324 yards

Tackles: Brandon McGowan, 63

Interceptions: Tim Hill, Malcolm Jackson, Austin Kerr, 2

Grayson’s Robert Nkemdiche is only a sophomore, but the defensive end is already drawing comparisons to one of Gwinnett’s greatest linemen.

“When I first got here, (Cameron) Heyward was a junior or senior and he looks better than him,” Sphire said. “He’s much more active and explosive. But they’ve got a lot of guys that can play.”

It’s a pretty strong comparison since Heyward was an all-state player for Peachtree Ridge and now an All-American at Ohio State.

But the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Nkemdiche has wreaked havoc on opposing offenses this season.

He’ll try again in tonight’s second-round Class AAAAA playoff game when No. 2 North Gwinnett hosts Grayson.

The game features the state’s top two scoring defenses, so points could be at a premium.

“They have a fantastic defense. It’s going to be a defensive battle,” Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. “You never know what to predict in playoff games. You look at it and think it will be a low-scoring game, but it’s so hard to tell.”

North Gwinnett has allowed 9.6 points a game this season, which includes two shutouts and no more than 10 points the last seven games. The only points scored in last Friday’s first-round, 56-7 win over Lassiter was an offensive fumble returned for a touchdown. The Bulldogs held Lassiter to 84 total yards last week and are only allowing 174 yards a game.

“They are very well coached in all phases of the game,” Conn said. “They bring a lot of pressure. We’re going to have to try and find a way to move the ball against them.”

Grayson’s defense has been just as impressive, allowing 10.3 points a game and just 148 yards of offense. The Rams recorded their third shutout of the season in last week’s 31-0 win over North Forsyth.

“They are really good. I love the way they play with effort, scheme and they’ve got some guys that can really play the game,” Sphire said. “They have some of the best looking guys flying around.”

Both teams have been their region’s most successful programs in recent years. North Gwinnett has reached at least the quarterfinals the last four years and has won the last two Region 7-AAAAA titles.

Grayson has been to at least the quarterfinals the last three years and has won two Region 8 crowns. Only 12 points over two games separated Grayson from being region champs again. The losses dropped the Rams to a No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

“It’s pretty tough. North has had a great year and is sitting at 11-0,” Conn said. “The last couple of years we were 11-0 at this time. We’ve played tough games before. You just see it a little earlier with North.”

It’s also a much tougher second-round game for North, which has won its last four second-round games by an average of 21 points.

“They’re one of those teams that could win it all,” Sphire said. “In AAAAA football in Georgia whether it’s first round, second or third, it’s going to be a good team often sooner or later. They are one of the toughest three seeds in the state.”

It’s the second time this season the two teams have played. They met in a preseason game that was televised on an Atlanta station and North won 28-15.

“Neither one of us were very good,” Sphire said. “We were breaking in 17 new starters. You kind of chuckle about it now. So I don’t put any stock in it.”

Nkemdiche and the Grayson defense will have the task of trying to slow down North’s Mr. Everything, C.J. Uzomah. The Auburn commitment is listed as a quarterback, but also lines up at receiver at times and leads the team in rushing.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete. We’ll have to do a good job in space to try and stop him,” Conn said. “We’re going to have a lot of people around the ball. He does a great job running, throwing, catching.”