By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
High school football: Impenetrable defensive front for Gainesville key to postseason run
Gainesville's Jarrious Harris (94) and Jeremiah Telander (2) converge on the tackle against Jackson County on Nov. 4, 2022 at City Park Stadium. - photo by Bill Murphy

As in a lot of sports, football coaches are often concerned about what will be their teams’ last line of defense.

That thought probably goes through the mind of Gainesville head coach Josh Niblett and his defensive staff from time to time.

However, as the 2022 season has progressed, Niblett and the defensive coaches have felt incrementally better about the Red Elephants’ first line of defense.

Like the rest of the team, the Gainesville defensive line has had to go through a lot of changes, both in personnel and scheme, since Niblett and the new coaching staff took over last winter.

However, that group manning the line of scrimmage has played an increasingly large role in the Red Elephants’ 11-0 season to date, and will likely remain a big key heading into their second-round Class 6A state playoff game against South Paulding (8-3) at City Park Stadium on Friday night.

“Coach (Greg) Carswell, our D-line coach, has done a really good job of creating an edge with our players … mentally, an edge physically, an edge technique-wise,” Niblett said. “I think our kids have trusted in that, and then I think our kids have worked their tails off. The amount of work that they’ve put in to get to this point has been unbelievable. They play so hard, and they play relentless.

“Our guys up front, they do a really good job understanding what they’re coached to do technique-wise. … I think their technique fundamentals (and) understanding the game has gotten better. … (It’s) what has been also about how much our kids have grown, and then their football knowledge and being a student of the game.”

Being a student of the game for the Red Elephants’ defensive linemen meant a lot of schooling crammed into a relatively short period of time.

And as their teacher, Carswell, those lessons had to do with more than just the X’s and O’s.

“It started back in February,” Carswell recalled. “The first meeting I had with my group, I just kind of laid it out and explained to them how close-knit a group we had to be to be successful and how much we had to lean on and count on each other to reap the benefits of what we’re trying to build.

“They did an amazing job of just buying into just trusting me and that process. It was hard on them. I was very tough on them. They had to grow up fast, and I think the most amazing thing about it is they all kind of had to grow up together.”

Growing up was a big part of the equation for many of the defensive linemen.

The Red Elephants feature some strong veteran leadership from the likes of seniors Stacy Hopkins Jr., Jarrious Harris and Adarian Cheek.

However, they also rely on some much younger contributors like sophomores Julius Columbus and Brandon Bailey and freshman Kadin Fossung.

So the task of helping guide the youngsters was one difficult enough that even Niblett, Carswell and the rest of the defensive staff turned to help from the veterans to pull it off.

It was an assignment Hopkins said he and his fellow seniors gladly accepted, and one that the kids took to well.

“(The younger players) came out (in preseason) ready,” Hopkins recalled. “I feel like they came out of middle school and was ready to play varsity, and they’re proving it right now. They’re holding their water, and I’m very proud of them.

“Being a leader towards them is amazing because that’s what I always wanted to be. I just wanted to be a leader because seeing them develop and helping the team and being able to be with the team is amazing.”

What was perhaps most amazing is how the defensive line responded to a major curveball thrown their way just weeks before the start of the season.

With many of the defensive linemen somewhat undersized, the coaches came to the conclusion that a change in scheme to something radically different from what had been installed to that point was necessary, forcing the players to unlearn nearly everything they had learned for months.

“Probably what a lot of people don’t know is our defense completely changed a couple of weeks before August,” Carswell said. “You go back to spring and summer and through a lot of our OTAs, we were (a) four-down (alignment). We kind of morphed into a 3-3 stack look, which gave us a better identity, but it did take us a lot more time to develop in the run game technique-wise, just because there’s a lot more you have to understand and a lot more you have to do.”

Hopkins admits that the dramatic change in alignment was tough for all the linemen at first, though they slowly, but surely began to make the necessary adjustments.

“It was actually a big deal,” Hopkins recalled. “Everybody had to get situated in doing what they needed to do. It was pretty tough at the beginning, but we started getting used to it in practicing and understanding it more, and it got easier by the (beginning of the season).”

Still, it took nearly half the season before the new system really began to click, particularly with regards to stopping the opponents running game.

Early in the season, the defense relied upon a fierce-and-fast pass rush, which resulted in several sacks and quarterback pressures, but left it somewhat vulnerable against strong running teams, including Marist and Clarke Central, each of which rolled up more than 200 yards on the ground in Gainesville’s first four games.

Since then, however, the Red Elephants have tightened up considerably against the run, having given up less than 400 yards total and 50 yards per game over the past seven contests.

“We hung our hat on what we were good at, at the time — getting off the ball fast and stressing people with speed,” Carswell said of the early-season approach. “That’s why you saw a lot more sacks early on in the season. That’s why you saw a lot more different plays in the backfield. Now we’re really honing in on exactly what (opponents are) doing … and not taking bait, not letting them dictate what we do and that we understand what they’re trying to do to us. I think our kid have gotten a lot smarter, a lot more aware and watched a lot more football, and not just played football. So they understand this game.”

And that leads to what Niblett believes is the quality he likes the most from his defensive line — namely, depth.

With so many different players of different ages contributing, the is convinced this year’s experience will pay off not only as the Red Elephants continue down the road in the state playoffs, but also into the future.

“We play a lot of them,” Niblett said. “We rotate a lot of guys in and out to keep fresh legs (on the field). I’m really proud of our seniors in that group. … Stacy Hopkins, Jarrious Harris, Adarian Cheek, those guys have done a really good job of taking leadership role in that room and helping develop our young guys. I think that’s neat to watch.

“I think the biggest thing is, with the young guys, it’s all about development. It’s all about getting experience and getting reps. The only way (improvement) is going to happen is by getting in the game, and I think Coach Carswell has done a really good job with those guys and getting those guys opportunities in some situations, and they’ve made the most of them. That’s why we play a lot of guys. I always say depth is when you can put a guy in and you don’t change what you’re doing.”

Friends to Follow social media