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Effort overcomes size for North Gwinnett defense

North Gwinnett defensive lineman Preston Green (96) celebrates the fumble recovery made by teammate Bobby Young (12) during the second round of Class AAAAAA state high school football playoffs against Grayson in Loganville Friday. North Gwinnett defeated Grayson 28-10.

North Gwinnett defensive lineman Preston Green (96) celebrates the fumble recovery made by teammate Bobby Young (12) during the second round of Class AAAAAA state high school football playoffs against Grayson in Loganville Friday. North Gwinnett defeated Grayson 28-10.

North Gwinnett's C.J. James darted into the backfield of Friday's game against Grayson to make an unlikely tackle.

The 5-foot-7, 180-pound James made a jarring hit on 6-foot-5, 275-pound Grayson running Robert Nkemdiche.

"He's fearless," said North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire of James. "He made a big hit."

James' tackle on Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 college recruit at defensive end, typifies the Bulldogs' defense. They are usually not the biggest or fastest on the field. Many of them probably won't even play football at the next level. But they are a unit full of good high school players that give great effort every play and it's paying off.

"It's high school football. You can't underestimate the effort of team unity, on a mission kind of attitude," Sphire said.

North (11-1) will travel to play Lovejoy (11-1) in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAAA state playoffs on Friday.

North's defense forced four turnovers in the Bulldogs' 28-10 victory over defending state champion Grayson on Friday. The Rams were averaging 42 points a game and were held to their second-fewest points of the season.

"Defensively, Mo (Dixon) does a good job," Grayson head coach Mickey Conn said before last week's game with North. "He brings pressure a lot of different ways."

The strong performance came a week after North's first-team defense allowed eight first downs in three quarters of a 49-19 victory over Johns Creek. The unit also had an interception and a fumble recovery, giving the Bulldogs six turnovers in two games.

"I know come playoff time, the turnover margin is huge," Sphire said. "Our defense has been very opportunistic."

The architect behind North's tough defense has been defensive coordinator Mo Dixon. The fiery Kentucky native has built a reputation for getting the most out of his players.

"The guy is one heck of a football coach," said Sphire, who has known Dixon for more than 20 years. "I can't say enough about what he gets out of his kids."

That statement rings true with this year's team. Carter Cross is 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, which is not the typical size for a starting linebacker in Class AAAAAA football. But he leads the team in tackles with 85 stops and 11 tackles for loss.

Preston Green is a 5-foot-10, 205-pound defensive lineman, but leads the team in sacks with six and has 19 QB hurries.

"We've got what we've got here," Sphire said. "It's great when a guy like that takes what he has and buys in."

The diminutive James seems to do a little bit of everything on defense with four sacks, one interception, a blocked kick and two forced fumbles.

"He's a guy doing a lot of things," Sphire said. "He keeps showing up in the midst of action."

Linebacker Jalen Brooks, who has committed to Maryland, and defensive lineman Dante Sawyer are the Bulldogs' only Division I prospects on defense. Sawyer has nearly a dozen scholarship offers as a junior. The rest of the defense is just your typical hard-nosed football players.

"I don't know if we would win any football picture beauty contests," Sphire said. "In high school football, size doesn't matter."

It hasn't been lights out for the defense all season. The group struggled early in the year when it went through a stretch of giving up 20 or more points in four straight games.

"We knew coming in it would be a learning process," Sphire said. "We're not the most gifted athletically, but the players make plays."

One of the turning points was the second half of the Collins Hill game when the Bulldogs shutout the Eagles' high scoring offense after allowing 24 in the first half. The first team defense has allowed five touchdowns the last four games.

This year's defense isn't the best statistically under Sphire and Dixon. They've allowed 206 points this year, which is second to the 2007 team that allowed 195 points in 15 games. The unit has allowed 2,456 yards of offense, which is about 400 yards more than last year's team. Most notably is the the 1,249 yards given up on the ground.

The number of passing and rushing yards haven't mattered lately for North. The only stat the defense is concerned about is the one on the scoreboard.

"Some how they keep finding a way to win games," Sphire said.