Early-season struggles well in the past as Blue Devils try for title repeat

NORCROSS — Fresh off its first state championship a year ago, the defense of that title got off to a most inauspicious of starts early in the 2013 campaign.

In fact, the Blue Devils’ last meeting with North Gwinnett proved to be the nadir of the current season.

But as they prepare for a rematch with the No. 4 state-ranked Bulldogs (13-1), and try to re-claim their state crown, in Saturday’s Class AAAAAA title game at the Georgia Dome, it’s obvious the season has turned completely around for the No. 3 Blue Devils (12-2).

“Obviously, things didn’t go the way we hoped (early on),” Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. “But we refocused ourselves like champions do.”

While at least one big factor in the Blue Devils’ resurgence since hitting rock bottom when a 36-17 loss to North on Sept. 13 dropped them to 1-2 on the season is fairly obvious, others are a little more subtle.

The most apparent improvement Norcross has made since those early dark days in the season has been simply seeing its defense play up to the capability everyone expected to since Day 1.

With such stars and major college prospects as defensive end Lorenzo Carter, linebackers Kevin Mouhon and Jaquan Francis and safety Jordan Noil, expectations were high.

But watching top-notch offenses like North and Florida powerhouse Booker T. Washington gash them for big plays and giving up 98 points in those first three games caused the Blue Devils to do some soul searching.

Rather than make any major overhauls in the unit’s schemes or personnel, the players simply did what they’d always planned to do, only better.

“Just watching film on the offenses we were playing, … we just turned it up a notch,” said senior linebacker Warren McWilliams, who trails Mouhon by just one tackle for the Norcross and Gwinnett lead with a combined 180 stops and assists this season. “We just didn’t want to end our senior year on a bad note. After coming out 1-2, we just kind of hit (the switch on) the light bulb.”

Indeed, the loss to North seemed to be the light bulb moment for the Norcross defense.

Since that game, the Blue Devils have allowed just 84 points in the 11 games that have followed, an average of just 7.6 per game, and have allowed opponents double-digit points in just three of those games.

Perhaps even more impressive is the caliber of offenses they’ve stifled during this run.

Norcross held Mill Creek, which averaged 40.2 points per game, to just 13 points, which was the only time the Hawks scored fewer than 30 points in a game all season.

The Blue Devils also shut out Collins Hill, which averaged 39.3 points per game and broke 32 or more points in 10 of its 13 games, held Peachtree Ridge (35.1 ppg) to its lowest output of the season (20), shut out Etowah (28.6 ppg until that point), held Lowndes (30.2 ppg) more than 23 points below its season average and stifled Colquitt County, which had scored 135 points in three previous playoff games, to just nine points.

“The defense just kept getting better and better (throughout the season),” Maloof said. “It’s all about being prepared wanting to learn … what (opposing) offenses are doing. The guys really worked out it.

“A lot of (the early-season struggles) had to do with the competition we were playing, and a lot of it had to do with focus. Coming off the offseason when we’d just won a state championship, maybe we didn’t have the focus to play some of the great teams we played.”

And just as the defense regained its focus as the season progressed, the offense had its share of “light bulb” moments after the early struggles.

A.J. Bush, who took over as starting quarterback after transferring from Milton over the summer, admits it took him longer to get to know his teammates, as well as the Norcross offense, than he initially thought it would.

In addition, with other players new to the program like starting running back Jonathan Boyd, as well as others like Myles Autry coming off serious injuries, the offense’s development was quite slow.

“That’s exactly what it was,” said Bush, who has run for 752 yards and 12 TDs and thrown for 1,795 yards and 14 scores this season. “At the beginning of the year we were — how should I put this? Very immature as a whole. Our playbook is not easy to learn. But now down the road, we’ve opened up the playbook more, and we’re a lot more versatile.”