Photo: Karl L. Moore Grayson defenders Jordan Germany (27), Jake Mueller (33) and Jay Strickland (38) tackle Wheeler running back Kahlem Looney (4) for no gain during last week's game in the first round of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs.
North Gwinnett at Grayson
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Last week: Beat Johns Creek 49-19
Grayson Rams (8-AAAAAA)
Coach: Mickey ConnRecord: 10-1
Last week: Beat Wheeler 49-9
Last meeting: Grayson won 23-19 in 2010
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Directions to Grayson High School: From I-85, go east on Sugarloaf Parkway to Ga. Highway 20 and turn right. Proceed through Grayson and turn right on Hope Hollow Road. School is immediately on the left
North Gwinnett was ranked No. 2 in the state two years ago going into the second round of the state playoffs.
The Bulldogs were undefeated, the Region 7 champions and one of the favorites to reach the state title game. North's playoff run ended with a 23-19 loss to visiting Grayson.
"I remember how humbling an experience that was," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. "When you had the level of expectations we had that year, it was humbling and disappointing."
The Bulldogs (10-1) have a chance to get some revenge Friday night at Britt-Moody Field.
Grayson (10-1) is the defending state champion, Region 8 winner and one of the contenders for the state title.
"We're going to prepare like we do every week," Grayson head coach Mickey Conn said. "When you play teams in Gwinnett, you're playing the best in the country in high school football. Gwinnett schools are well coached with great players. You know you're going to be tested."
The winner will face the Lovejoy vs. Marietta winner in the quarterfinals next week.
Grayson has been on a roll since a loss in Game 3. The Rams have won eight straight games by an average of 41 points.
"We're not taking anybody for granted," Conn said. "We have to be ready for a 48-minute battle."
The Rams' defense has posted four shutouts and allowed 22 points in the last six weeks.
"They are as good a defense as I've ever seen in high school football," Sphire said. "They are big, strong, athletic and fly to the football. It's almost like they are possessed on defense."
The defense is led by defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 college recruit. He's one of seven Division I college prospects on defense. Noseguard Marquise Motley was out last week with a deep thigh bruise but is expected to play this week.
"Everyone wants to focus on No. 1 (Nkemdiche) and it's hard not to, but there's no soft belly anywhere," Sphire said.
Grayson's defense will be a big challenge for North quarterback Michael Haynes and the Bulldogs' offense. The senior is the county's top dual threat QB, throwing for 2,013 yards and 25 TDs and rushing for 647 yards and three TDs.
"Hopefully, we can get to him, but he has a good offensive line around him," Conn said.
If there's a weakness on Grayson's defense, it's pass coverage.The Rams gave up two long plays to Brookwood and one to Wheeler in last week's playoff game."We can't afford to do that against a team like North," Conn said.
Grayson and North Gwinnett have been two of the state's most successful programs in recent years.
North has won 10 or more games every year since 2006. It has claimed three region crowns, reached the state finals in 2007 and is consistently ranked in the top 10 in the state.
"The kids hustle and get after it. That's a compliment to their coaches," Conn said. "I think it's the attitude of the kids and community."
Grayson has reached the state quarterfinals the last five years, has won four of the last five Region 8 crowns and claimed the state championship a year ago.
"I think it's pretty obvious when you watch their program. They are a year-round program." Sphire said. "They are a program that expects to compete for a championship."