Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Norcross offensive linemen Horatio Walker (65), Blake Wood (55), Caleb Crum (50), Ryan Northrup (70), Joseph Ledford (77) and Trenton Jenkins (68) have helped the Blue Devils put up big numbers this year. Norcross faces Camden County Friday during the third round of Class AAAAAA state football playoffs.
NORCROSS -- In many ways, Norcross' offensive line is a lot like that of most of the state's top high school football programs.
The unit puts in a lot of preparation and effort in doing a lot of the grunt work, which often goes unnoticed, so that the skill position players can help the offense pile up yards and points, and plenty of headlines.
"I tell them the only ones who will notices you each week are your mom and dad and your coaches, because they're the only ones watching you," joked Norcross offensive line coach Dale Farr. "Unless there's a sack or a poor running play, nobody's going to notice you. You don't get a lot of credit, but (the line) is very important to the team's success."
Indeed, as Norcross (12-0, ranked No. 2 in the state) prepares for Friday's Class AAAAAA state quarterfinal matchup at fourth-ranked Camden County, the line has done an outstanding job of opening up holes for speedy Blue Devil skill players such as Alvin Kamara (Gwinnett's second-leading rusher with 1,784 yards and 23 TDs) and Myles Autry (1,104 total yards, 14 combined TDs), as well as protecting quarterback Joseph Wilber (119-175-4, 2,005 yards, 23 TDs).
However, it's been more than just hard work during offseason workouts and practices and the size and strength of primary members Joseph Ledford (6-foot-2, 251 pounds), Caleb Crum (6-1, 210), Trenton Jenkins (6-5, 330), Ryan Northrup (6-2, 276), Horatio Walker (6-4, 338) and Blake Wood (5-10, 240) that has build the unit into one of the state's best.
What sets the Blue Devils apart is the cohesiveness of each individual has helped build the line into a team within a team.
"We've been hanging out (together) even outside (football) -- more than, I bet, any team around the nation has," said Ledford, the starting quick tackle. "I knew back in spring we were going to have a great (line) just the way everyone worked together and how hard we were working compare to the teams I'd previously been on."
Still, building such closeness and chemistry hasn't been as easy as the Blue Devils starters have made it look.
As Norcross head coach Keith Maloof points out, the line has had to build it despite plenty of new faces and interchangeable parts over the past two seasons.
Season-ending injuries to strong side starters Danny Danh at tackle and Matt Eller at guard forced then sophomores Wood and Walker into the starting lineup and gave them valuable game experience.
"It was devastating for us last year to lose (former strong tackle) Danny Danh and (former strong guard) Matt Eller, but us helped us this year," Maloof said. "What the offensive linemen do more than any other players on the team is they bond together. They really love each other. They eat together. They work hard together. They're out here at 6 a.m. (during offseason workouts) flipping (monster truck) tires and running through sand pits. And it's paid off for this group."
The line than had other new faces to incorporate this year after Crum stepped in when sophomore Ryan Savage, whom he was battling for the starting center job, also went down injured during the preseason, while Jenkins, who had briefly attended Norcross as a freshman, transferred back after spending the past two seasons at GAC.
And the task has been even more tricky with six players rotating frequently though the five line positions, with several playing multiple position -- few more than Ledford, who has played tackle, guard and center at different times this season.
However, it is Ledford -- the only senior on a unit otherwise made up entirely of juniors, and includes three first-year starters -- who has been the catalyst in keeping the line together, according to Maloof.
"Ledford's a mainstay who rotates around with Horatio and Trent," Maloof said. "You've got to (have leaders like Ledford). He's very smart and able to make all the calls, and he's able to play center, guard or tackle."
Still, Crum says the multiple alignments can make it challenging when he looks up and sees someone different on either side of him every other play.
"With the way we call blocks, it gets pretty interesting," Crum said, evoking laughter from his teammates. "But we've gotten down throughout the season. It was difficult at first, but it's gotten pretty easy now."
Despite constantly adding new members and new alignments, the unit's chemistry has continued to flourish.
"When Ryan Savage went down, it just got us kind of tighter," Crum said. "It's been a (different) role (for me), but just knowing what all these other guys have to do every day, I appreciate what they do. We don't get the limelight, but we practice hard every day. So, we build a bond."
The Blue Devils' skill players also appreciate what the line does for them.
They know without efforts like the one given by Northrup in last Friday's 27-7 second-round win over South Gwinnett, during which he registered a career-best 10 pancake blocks, it's doubtful Norcross could've have accumulated an average of 403.5 yards and 38.5 points per game. They've also allowed three sacks of Wilber all season,
Regardless, Ledford says the skill players aren't shy about showing their appreciation.
"Myles and Alvin are pretty humble guys, so they give us a lot of credit," Ledford said. "Usually we end up in the paper every week with them giving us a shout out. So, that's pretty nice. And I hang out with Wilber all the time. We're good friends."