When the LaGrange Grangers were winning state championships, a common theme was a dominant, suffocating defense.
The Grangers won state championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004, and none of those teams gave up more than seven points per game, and two of those teams only allowed five points a game.
The defensive coordinator for those teams was Donnie Branch, who is now the LaGrange head coach.
Branch is hoping LaGrange’s defense gets back to that championship form at some point.
For the moment, LaGrange’s defense is looking to find some consistency.
The Grangers have had some solid performances, including back-to-back games where they only allowed a total of 14 points, but they’ve also given up 30 or more points in five of their eight games.
Last week, facing top-ranked Sandy Creek, the Grangers surrendered 35 first-half points on the way to a 42-7 loss.
“We do have some physical limitations, but the biggest thing is the inability to trust what they’re supposed to be (doing),” Branch said before practice on Monday. “That keeps us from being as good as we need to be. When you have pretty good talent, and you read your keys, you can play a little above your head. When you have pretty good talent that doesn’t do it , you give up a lot of points. It’s pretty simple.”
Against teams like Sandy Creek, Branch said any weaknesses in a defense are exposed.
“If you’re playing a bad team, and you jump inside on a run at the corner, you can whirl around and re-direct and catch the guy,” Branch said. “If you’re playing Sandy Creek and you’re inside and he takes the edge, you can’t catch him.”
Branch does believe the future of LaGrange’s defense is a promising one.
A lot of LaGrange’s key players on defense are first-year starters, and Branch believes they’ll grown more and more comfortable in their roles.
“Athletically, they’ll do nothing but get better,” Branch said. “Our weight room is the MVP. Our kids are strong, all that kind of stuff. That part’s going good. Also, I think there are some guys in the ninth-grade group who may fit. We had 53 guys on our ninth-grade team. They finished really strong. I think there’s some talent there.”
Branch is hopeful the defense will find its form this week when LaGrange takes on arch-rival Troup.
It’s a game the Grangers have to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.
A strength of LaGrange’s defense is the defensive line, with senior Dazmon Dunlap leading the way.
Dunlap provided some defensive highlights during Friday’s one-sided loss to Sandy Creek, and Branch felt the men up front held their own against the powerful Patriots.
“Dazmon Dunlap I thought played hard,” Branch said. “Dazmon does what he’s supposed to do. The majority of the time, he understands, he goes there, I do this.”
Fellow senior Devin Bolan also brings experience to the field for the Grangers, and the other starters on the line are sophomore Emmanuel Mann and junior Desmond Harris.
Jalen Gates and Jeffery Walker also play on the defensive line.
“Sometimes they’re out-gunned a little bit, but they competed hard (against Sandy Creek),” Branch said.
Dunlap, one of the few players with a bunch of varsity experience coming into the season, said he has tried to set an example for the younger players.
“You have to influence them,” he said. “Make them go hard. Some of them, if they see us not going hard, they think we can do it, too. It has to start here in practice. They see us going hard, they’ll go hard, too.”
At the linebacker position, one of LaGrange’s most promising players is sophomore Jeremiah Wright.
Wright is one of the defense’s top play-makers, but Branch said “he’s got a long ways to go.”
“He has gotten a lot better,” Branch added. “He’s improved a lot. It’s the tip of the iceberg. He plays hard. He runs around, and he’s making some plays.”
The defensive player with the most experience is linebacker Tae Glover, who wasn’t as effective last week because he was sick most of the week.
Glover, a senior, is a three-year starter.
“We need him healthy, and he’s healthy,” Branch said.
Junior Mon Denson, who began the season at safety, and junior D.J. Towns are also linebackers for the Grangers.
Benny Gray, the Grangers’ leading rusher, also plays linebacker for the Grangers, and he played more than usual last week because of Glover’s illness.
“He’s kind of our insurance policy on defense,” Branch said. “We play him as needed.”
Gray may need to fill in more at linebacker because of an injury to senior Skylar Huzzie, who suffered a season-ending injury to his collar bone last week.
In the defensive backfield, junior cornerback Corey Perkins had an interception against Sandy Creek that set up the Grangers’ lone touchdown.
Another starting corner is junior Triston Dozier.
“At times, Corey has looked really good,” Branch said. “Triston Dozier the same thing. But they will occasionally venture off into free-lance world.”
At free safety, Branch said junior Emmanuel Swanson “has a lot of potential.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s game, Branch said a key will be for each defensive player to understand that for the team to succeed, he has to make sure to focus on his own responsibilities, and have faith that the guy beside him will do his job.
“You have to learn to trust what I’m supposed to do,” Branch said. “You can’t get hung up doing somebody else’s job.”
Long-term, Branch said it’s critical for the program to re-discover its defensive identity.
“We need to get good defensively. If you’re good defensively, you’re in every game,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of years of being not very good on defense.”