WARNER ROBINS -- The numbers have been impressive on the offensive side, between four games of 45 points or more, a 2,100-yard rusher and a large offensive line that has helped the learning curve of a young quarterback to a 13-1 season.
But overlooked and just as important for state finalist Northside has been its performance on the other side of the ball.
The Eagles carry a pretty impressive defensive resume into Friday’s GHSA Class AAAAA title game against Mays at the Georgia Dome.
Even with injuries and youth, the defense has developed into an often dominant unit.
“On the defensive line, we’ve had some guys come on to where we rotate two different groups throughout the game at linebacker and up front,” head coach -- and former defensive coordinator -- Kevin Kinsler said. “That helps keep our kids fresh. And we’re not losing anything by rotating those kids through.”
“That’s been huge for us as the year’s gone on.”
Only two opponents have scored more than 21 points, both among the classification’s highest-scoring offenses: Jones County and Houston County. Four playoff teams have managed 12.2 points per game, with one being among Northside’s three shutout victims. Another four have failed to crack 10 points.
Teams are averaging 14.4 points per game, on 61.4 yards rushing and a 47.7 percent completion rate through the air. Northside has surrendered 17 touchdowns through the air -- a high number, except for the fact that most teams are in a deep catch-up mode -- against 14 interceptions.
The Eagles have done all this without an abundance of proven returning players. Northside could start anywhere from four to seven underclassmen Friday. Kam Burnett and Tae Daley are sophomores who are early in potentially monster high school careers.
They are first and second in tackles for the Eagles and second and third in interceptions.
“(They) have the same (trait),” defensive coordinator Chris Reeves said. “They’re able to get away with doing things because they’re so much better than everybody else. This year, they’ve kind of had to learn how to do some things right.
“They’re guys that have made great strides as the year has gone on. They’re in the right place a little more often. They know why they’re there now rather than just accidentally showing up there.”
Five of the top eight defensive linemen are underclassmen, with two sophomores. And two of the three backup linebackers, in a 4-3 alignment, are juniors.
The Eagles lost returnees Stephan Cesar and D.Q. Gordon to early season injuries, but they have been able to overcome that.
“Before the season started, we felt like we had about 12 defensive linemen that could play,” Reeves said. “All of a sudden, we’re looking at seven. It’s the resilience of these kids. They come out and keep playing.”
Junior defensive lineman Darius Richardson was an unproven commodity with potential in August, and he is third among full-time linemen with 30 tackles.
“As a freshman, he was a tight end,” Reeves said. “As a sophomore, he was a linebacker. We moved him to nose man, and he’s just done tremendous out there. We felt like he had the ability and the tools to do it, but he hadn’t actually been out there in the heat of battle and been tested.”
There are similar stories throughout the defense, which is full of versatility. Josh Vickers is one of those who alternates between linebacker and defensive back, and he missed some time early in the season with an injury. Senior Tyree Williams probably won’t start, but few will be busier.
“Tyree is the guy who really bounces around,” Reeves said. “He’ll play defensive end, he plays linebacker, inside or out. He’s a guy we try to do a lot of things with.”
The Eagles held out end Robert Jones (shoulder) for the second half last week and hardly lost a step in their pass rush or against the run.
Mays will see a variety of alignments Friday, from the base 4-3 to a 3-3, 3-4, 3-5 and 4-4, with mostly the same players filling adjusted roles. And there’s little the Raiders will come up with that the Eagles haven’t seen and responded to this season.
Between injuries and inexperience, it would not be a stretch to say that the defense has performed above and beyond what most would have figured ... unless Reeves is on the receiving end of that observation.
“Not my expectations,” he said. “It’s surpassed what a lot of people thought it was going to do. We’re perfectionists. We’re going to try to do everything by the book. We don’t want them to get nothing. That’s our goal.”