LaGrange defensive linemen impose their will
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
The Callaway Cavaliers have faced three high-powered offenses in the state playoffs, and they’ve shut them all down.
A key to Callaway’s success has been the performance of a defensive line that has been overpowering opposing offenses throughout the playoffs.
The defensive line is a position of strength for the Cavaliers, with 10 or more players getting onto the field on game night.
The man who shuffles the players in and out is defensive-line coach Jamal Bruce, and he makes sure that whoever is on the field is at 100 percent and ready to make plays.
“You’re always putting a fresh group of guys in,” Bruce said. “It’s all part of the plan.”
In last week’s 41-17 win over Rabun County, the starters on the defensive line were Keshawn Suggs, Sam Williams, Trey Stephens and Caden Prather.
They’re joined in the defensive-line rotation by Jacob Miles, Lathan Patterson, Alan Shuman, Elijah Gunn, Caleb Woody, Chauncey Bradford, Frederick Tigner, Cameron Gunn and Nate Lee.
“We have that rotation, so we don’t get tired,” Stephens said. “You can go hard every play. You know you have a substitute.”
Prather, a senior and a two-year starter, said the depth on the line “allows us, when we’re in, to make more plays than we would if we played every snap.”
Bruce, keeping a close eye on what’s happening on the field, also bases his decisions on who is making the biggest impact.
“Whoever has the hot hand will be the one that plays the most,” Bruce said. “Last week, I didn’t start (Elijah) Gunn, but he ended up playing well, so he stayed in there a lot longer.”
The defensive-line depth has been particularly important this season, with players missing time not only due to injuries, but because of quarantine procedures related to Covid-19.
“Give a lot of that credit to coach Bruce,” said Dusty Hubbard, Callaway’s defensive coordinator. “I think he played 11 defensive linemen the other night. That’s a lot of guys. That keeps them fresh. That’s a lot of guys to coach up and make sure they know where to go. He does a good job of that. I think that’s helped us when we’ve had some issues with injuries and quarantine. Those other guys have played so much that they’re able to step in there and play and do the job.”
One of the leaders on the defensive line is Prather, a four-year member of the program and an onfield contributor since he was a sophomore. Prather, like so many of his Callaway teammates, has made the absolute most of the physical gifts he has.
“I feel like a lot of people that aren’t going to go play at Alabama and places like that, they work twice as hard, especially people who are smaller in size.,” Prather said. “They have to work harder to get a position at a school like this. You play as hard as you can. It’s working out.”
Prather and his partners on the defensive line are coming off arguably their most impressive performance of the season.
Rabun County arrived in LaGrange for the Class AA semifinal game riding high, with all-state quarterback Gunner Stockton leading the way.
Stockton, who has committed to South Carolina, had been putting up impressive numbers throughout the season, but he was shut down by Callaway.
Stockton, who ran for more than 1,000 yards this season, was unable to get anything going on the ground, and he wasn’t effective in the passing game, either.
“We went in there with a game plan and we knew we needed to stop him, and we executed it,” Prather said.
Stephens, fully aware of Stockton’s impressive resume, said “it makes you go harder when you know he’s a five-star. We made him look like a regular quarterback.”
The previous week, Callaway put the clamps on another explosive offense from Thomasville, and the pressure the defensive linemen placed on quarterback Ronnie Baker helped lead to four interceptions.
In the second round of the playoffs, Callaway beat Lovett 16-9, and it was another dominant performance by the defense, led by the defensive line, as well as linebackers LaQuize Gilbert, LaDarrious Williams, Kier Jackson and Austin Thomas.
The Cavaliers had four interceptions in that game as well, giving them a total of eight picks against Lovett and Thomasville, and they have nine in three playoff games.
Defensive back Jalin Shephard, the Region 5-AA player of the year, has four of those nine interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown against Rabun County.
Cameron Smith and Osiris Rivas each has two interceptions, and Williams returned an interception for a touchdown against Thomasville.
WHAT: Class AA state-championship game
WHEN: Dec. 29, noon
WHERE: Center Parc Stadium, Atlanta
RECORDS: Callaway (11-1); Fitzgerald (14-0)
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Callaway finished first in Region 5-AA and beat Banks County, Lovett, Thomasville and Rabun County in the state playoffs; Fitzgerald finished first in Region 1-AA and beat Oglethorpe County, Northeast, Fannin County and Jefferson County in the state playoffs
OF NOTE: For much more on the state-championship gam