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High school football: Development of youthful talent has Cherokee Bluff defense with some of the state's best production
Third-year school has eight starters with three years starting experience at varsity level
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Cherokee Bluff's Shad Dabney takes down Gilmer County running back Kobe Stonecipher Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, during the first half of their game at Cherokee Bluff High - photo by Scott Rogers

One of the newest schools in the entire state also has one of the most successful defensive units in football. 

That’s not due to an influx of new players. It’s kids who were thrown into varsity action early and kept grinding after a winless first season in 2018 for Cherokee Bluff. 

Now, the 10th-ranked Bears (6-0, 2-0 Region 7-3A) have a group this season that has produced back-to-back games were it held the opposition to negative yardage, and yet to allow any team put up 200 yards of offense. 

“I don’t think anyone in the state has a defense with this much varsity experience,” Bears defensive coordinator Chris Griffin said. “Since the first play of Game 1 this season, our defense has been playing with so much intensity.”

It’s hard to single out a single player for Cherokee Bluff on defense as the leader. 

Senior Dakota Collins has already matched the school record for sacks in a season (5), while he’s tied with senior linebacker Garrett Davis for the school record with stops behind the line in a game (4).

A couple other notes of interest is that Cherokee Bluff recorded seven sacks in the game against Chestatee, then six against Georgia Military College. 

“Coach Griffin has done a great job preparing our kids and they’ve gone out and been great at executing the game plan,” Bears head coach Tommy Jones said. 

“Our defense is a very fun group to coach,” said Griffin, who was a defensive coordinator for nine years at Flowery Branch (2003-2011) before serving as its head coach (2012-2016).

Jones is still very careful in passing out praise, especially with a stretch run in region play that will determine who makes the postseason. However, a win in the Bears’ next game Oct. 30 against winless Lumpkin County will almost certainly lock up their first playoff berth in school history. 

And a big chunk of that credit goes back to a gritty defense that, in Year 3, is reaping the benefits of staying on the same page. 

In 2020, Cherokee Bluff allows, on average, just 55 yards per game on the ground and surrendered three rushing touchdowns for the entire season. 

Those numbers, paired with an offense that has topped 40 points in 4 of 6 outings, and averages 40 per game, has made for a first half of the season that has exceeded even the most optimistic outlook. 

“The key to our entire program is that we play complimentary football,” said Jones, who has been coach since the program started at Cherokee Bluff. “Offense, defense and special team work hand in hand. We also have a staff that gets along so well together.”

One play, on defense, may have set the tone for what was to come at Cherokee Bluff. 

In 2019, the Bears were faced with a sudden-change situation when they turned the ball over at its own 5-yard line against Fannin County. On the first play of the ensuing drive, linebacker Brayden Nance went unblocked by the right side of the Rebels’ line of scrimmage. Nance hit the Fannin County running back so hard that it knocked the ball carrier’s helmet straight up into the air. 

“It was one of those hits that you can feel,” Griffin said. “Just a textbook tackle.”

Even though Cherokee Bluff came up short in that outing, 21-7, it was one of the moments that set the tone for 2020. Then, during the offseason, the Bears added cornerback Shad Dabney, a Kansas University commit, who left Riverside Military after the private school in Gainesville cancelled all 2020 fall sports, due to COVID-19 concerns. 

Since 2020 started, despite all the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been all uphill for Cherokee Bluff’s defense. 

The Bears set a school record on defense when Georgia Military College had negative-22 yards of offense. Last week, the Bears held West Hall to 34 yards on the ground and four first downs. 

Jones said that none of it would have been possible without a hard-nosed group of players that stuck it out during hard times. 

He recalls his first team meeting when 12 players were in the room. Despite a lack of quantity, the quality was certainly in place to build a winner. 

And, for the Bears, Year 3 has the potential to not only yield a playoff berth but also a region championship. 

Still, there’s some football left to play for the first-place Cherokee Bluff. After Lumpkin County, the Bears’ final three opponents, North Hall and Dawson County are still also unbeaten in Region 7-3A. 

“Less than three years later, we’re in that discussion, which is exciting, but it still feels like a million miles away,” Jones said. 

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