Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Norcross defensive backs JaQuan Simpkins (4), Bryant Henderson (11), Shon Akins (3), Jordan Noil (13), A.J. Hopkins (14) and Brandon Garner (27) have made it difficult for teams to throw the ball against the Blue Devils' defense this season. Norcross faces Colquitt County in the semifinal Class AAAAAA state playoff game today.
Late in the third quarter of last week's quarterfinal game, Camden County was driving for what would have been a damaging touchdown.
The Norcross defense needed a big play.
Defensive back Jordan Noil came through, intercepting Camden's Brice Ramsey.
The turnover set up Norcross' go-ahead score as the Blue Devils moved into tonight's Class AAAAAA semifinal against Colquitt County.
It's been that kind of season for the Norcross secondary that has come up with big play after big play for the Blue Devils.
"It was a momentum-changer, a game-changer," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said.
Noil and Shon Akins each intercepted passes by Ramsey, a Georgia commitment, who had thrown one INT all season. It's a common theme for the Blue Devils' secondary that has 10 of the team's 15 interceptions this season.
"We've got three rules. Don't get beat deep, defend the deep ball and make great tackles. That's what we do," Norcross defensive backs coach Reggie Cockerm said.
Akins, a California commitment, is the leader on and off the field. He's the first one to cut up and give his teammates a hard time and the first one to lead drills during practice.
"We all have a good time when we need to, but when it's time to work we get down and we do what we have to do," Akins said.
Akins leads the secondary in tackles with 78 and has 16 pass breakups. The cornerback blocked a field goal in the season opener against South Gwinnett and recorded his first interception last week against Camden to set up a Norcross score.
"The pressure up front with Zo and our linemen, they get pressure on the quarterback and he doesn't know what to do and he just throws it up," Akins said.
JaQuan Simpkins is the other returning starter in the secondary and is cornerback on the opposite side of the field from Akins. He leads the team in pass breakups with 17 and has a knack for making big plays. He returned a fumble 92 yards against Mill Creek and had a 100-yard kickoff return against Collins Hill.
"Both of those guys give us an advantage on the outside with their experience," Cockerm said.
Noil, who leads the team with five interceptions, plays free safety and Brandon Garner makes calls in the backfield at strong safety.
"They've really come on and been additions we didn't know, but they've really come up big," Cockerm said.
Garner was hurt the week of practice going into the first round of the state playoffs. Bryant Henderson, who has a 4.0 GPA, intercepted a pass in his first start replacing Garner.
A.J. Hopkins brings depth to the group at free safety and will often play man-to-man with the team's best receiver.
"At some point in the year, all of them have made big plays to put us where we are right now," Maloof said.
The Norcross secondary has been tested several times this year against spread style offenses from South Gwinnett, North Gwinnett, Mill Creek and Collins Hill. They are allowing only 110 yards passing a game.
"They've had their backs against the wall all season long," Maloof said. "We've seen a lot of great receivers. They've accepted the challenge."
The group will face their biggest challenge of the year tonight against a Colquitt offense that averages 235 yards passing a game and has one of the state's top receivers.
"I think we're going to face a good team, but of course I think we're better all around," like any good cornerback, a confident Akins said. "I think our offense is better, our defense is better. We're just going to go out there and do what we need to do like we always do and come out with a W."
Here’s a look at the Norcross secondary, which has 10 of the team’s 15 interceptions this season (with height, weight, tackles, passes defended and interceptions).
CB Shon Akins 5-9, 170 78 16 1
CB JaQuan Simpkins 5-10, 165 46 17 2
FS Jordan Noil 6-3, 175 40 10 5
FS A.J. Hopkins 5-9, 165 29 1 0
SS Brandon Garner 5-10, 195 35 7 0
SS Bryant Henderson 5-8, 165 26 3 2