When asked how much they enjoyed playing in Flowery Branch High’s pressure-heavy defense, senior outside linebackers Cameron Cordell, Colby Adams and Will Price all nodded in agreement.
“We have a lot of fun in this defense,” Price said with a grin. “It’s really fun, the way we rush the quarterback.”
Fun and fruitful.
The Falcons have established themselves as a force on defense, using frequent pressure to create havoc against some of Class 5A’s top offenses. It’s a big reason why Flowery Branch (9-2) has reached the second round of the playoffs, where it will face perhaps its stiffest test of the season at No. 6 Carver-Atlanta at 7:30 p.m. today.
Players have thrived in first-year defensive coordinator Bill Ballard’s 3-4 base defense, but the coach said the key to his unit’s success following a losing season has very little to do with Xs and Os.
“The guys were hungry to get better,” Ballard said. “And we had coach (Ben) Hall come in and make them believe they had a chance. The guys bought into it, and I think they really enjoy playing in our defense. That’s still what it’s all about, just having fun.”
It’s hard not to when you’re playing for a team this good.
Flowery Branch has piled up 69 tackles for loss this season, with 26 coming as sacks. Fourteen players have recorded two or more tackles for loss — led by Adams with 11 — signaling the Falcons’ depth and the creativity they employ in attacking opposing offenses.
As a result, Flowery Branch allows just 14.6 points per game, 10th-fewest in Class 5A. The squad gave up about twice as many points per outing last season, a 3-7 campaign that punctuated three straight years without a playoff berth before Hall took over this fall.
“We’re more physical and faster to the football,” said Cordell, fourth on the team with six tackles for loss. “We talk about wanting to be the fastest team. … When it comes to our pressure, a quarterback can’t throw when he’s on the ground.”
Only three teams have scored more than 14 points against the Falcons this season, including third-ranked Buford and Class 4A No. 9 Jefferson, both of which are still alive in the postseason.
Flowery Branch most recently held first-round playoff opponent Kell, the eighth-best offense in Class 5A, to 14 points that all came in a frantic fourth-quarter rally. The Falcons’ relentless pressure led to seven tackles for loss, a pair of forced fumbles and two near-interceptions in their 21-14 win, the program’s first playoff victory since 2011.
“We focus on creating turnovers,” said Price, who has three tackles for loss to his credit. “We walk down the outside linebackers, and that helps us get a lot more pressure.”
Ballard’s unit will need to replicate that performance against a team with big-time Division I prospects at every offensive skill position.
Hall said Octavious Battle, a South Florida commit, looks the part of a true dual-threat quarterback, and his numbers certainly back that up. The senior has completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns along with 631 rushing yards.
His favorite target is Auburn commit Quindarious Monday, pegged by 247Sports.com’s composite rankings as a four-star prospect and the 25th-best player in talent-rich Georgia’s 2018 class.
Joining them in helping the top-seeded Panthers (10-1) score 33.1 points per game is sophomore running back Jo’Quavious Marks. Alabama and Miami are among the six major schools that have offered scholarships to Marks, who’s averaging 11.4 yards per carry.
“They’re the most athletic team we’ve played so far,” Hall said. “We’ll have to play well in all phases, control the ball and limit their possessions.”
That’s a philosophy No. 2 seed Flowery Branch has employed in every game this year, pairing its stifling defense with a run-first offense designed to chew up yards and clock alike.
Ballard — a head coach for three separate schools over the past 15 years, most recently at White County — said Hall’s offensive approach also aids the defense through personnel groupings. By rolling out different packages on offense, the Falcons who play on both sides of the ball can get much-needed rest in the age of up-tempo attacks.
The defensive coordinator also credited Hall for his shrewd evaluation of players, like when he moved senior Myles Janess from receiver to defensive back to shore up a secondary that’s often in man coverage due to the heavy pressure up front.
Finally, Ballard praised defensive line coach Andrew Peck, outside linebackers coach Will Peters and secondary coach Lee Hannah for their roles in transforming Flowery Branch’s defense into one of the state’s best.
Peters especially has a way of getting the best out of his players.
“Coach Peters makes us do up-downs if we don’t get to the ball fast enough,” Cordell said.
That’s about the only time Falcons defenders aren’t having fun.