If the Callaway Cavaliers were out to make a statement, it was delivered loud and clear in the season opener against Heard County.
The two teams also met in the 2012 season opener, and Heard County rolled up more than 500 yards of offense en route to a 43-37 victory.
As this year’s Heard County game inched closer, the Callaway defense was determined to not get pushed around again.
So the Cavaliers went out and, against a team that averaged 43 points a game a year ago, delivered a knockout punch.
The Braves not only didn’t score, they didn’t really even come close as Callaway rolled to a 34-0 victory.
A primary reason for Callaway’s dominance was the performance of the defensive line.
The Cavaliers controlled the line of scrimmage.
Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say they owned the line of scrimmage.
Heard County’s running backs rarely made it past the line of scrimmage without being taken down, and quarterback Jonathan Hunt was seemingly in the grasp of a Callaway player as soon as he dropped back to pass.
“We put in a lot of work in the off-season, every day,” said one of those defensive lineman, Nooney Anderson. “They beat us last year. We couldn’t let them beat us this year.”
The Cavaliers, and the outstanding group of defensive linemen, haven’t looked back since.
Heading into Friday’s regular-season finale against Rockmart, the Cavaliers are 8-1, and they’ve wrapped up a second consecutive Region 4-AAA championship.
A key to the Callaway success is the performance of a veteran, talented group of defensive lineman.
Of the five players who are on the field most of the time, at least when games are still competitive, four of them are seniors, and one is a junior.
“It’s a veteran group. Those guys have been around for a long time right there,” Callaway defensive coordinator Dusty Hubbard said. “They’re kind of the heart and soul of our defense. Some of them haven’t really played a whole lot until the last couple of years. But they earned their time. They’ve been good for us.”
The four seniors are Anderson, J’Lynn Allen, Deon Smith and Justice Perkins, and Lorenzo Patterson is a junior.
Jason Sherrer, the team’s defensive-line coach, said having a group of mature, responsible and dedicated players makes his job a lot easier.
“They do a good job of holding each other accountable, too. One of them does something good, they’ll give each other credit. One of them doesn’t do something good, they let them know that,” Sherrer said. “It’s almost to the point when it’s game time, you just step back and let them do what they need to do. And they usually do it. It makes it easy for me.”
Smith said all of the linemen understand the importance of working together, of four men acting as one.
“We’ve got a lot of chemistry. We just work together,” Smith said. “We hold each other accountable. We play hard every down. We try to work hard day in and day out to get better.”
Perkins said the defensive linemen “work as a team.”
“We play together well,” he added. “We compete against each other well.”
Perkins said the players spent a lot of time together during the summer, either participating in the off-season conditioning program, or going to camps.
“Over the summer, you spend more time together,” Perkins said. “You get the team chemistry. And you play more as a team. You’re like a family.”
Patterson said the linemen camps they attended during the summer helped a lot.
“We went to a lot of camps this summer,” Patterson said. “It helped us get better. It helped with our footwork and stuff.”
Team work is important, but once the ball is snapped, it’s also a one-on-one game pitting a defensive lineman against an offensive lineman.
It’s not always pleasant down in the trenches when you have two groups of players, most of whom weigh between 200 and 300 pounds, colliding with each other.
Sherrer said players need to have a certain mentality to play at the line of scrimmage.
“You have to have a little dirty in you,” Sherrer said. “It takes some grit. You get your hand stepped on. You get stuck in a face mask, or you get a finger nail ripped off. You just have to keep going.”
Perkins said the defensive line isn’t a place for passive personalities.
“You have to have a physical attitude,” he said. “You just play hard, get to the ball.”
Added Smith: “You tell yourself, I’m going to beat the man in front of me.”
The defensive line, of course, is just part of the big picture with the Callaway defense.
The Cavaliers have an exceptional group of linebackers led by KeShun Freeman, who plans on signing with Georgia Tech in February.
Labronze Zelaya is also having a big season at linebacker.
Allen said the defensive linemen have helped the linebackers amass some impressive tackle totals this season.
“We’ve been making a lot of plays, and helping the linebackers like KeShun make more plays because we’re occupying the offensive line,” Allen said.
Callaway also has a strong group of defensive backs led by junior Terry Godwin, one of the state’s most heavily recruited players.
Combine a stingy defense with an offense that scores close to 40 points per game, and it’s no wonder the Cavaliers are having such an outstanding season.
The defensive linemen are happy to be a part of the winning picture.
“We knew we were going to be good this season because we worked hard during the summer,” Smith said. “We knew we had a chance to go all the way. That’s what our coach tells us every day. To get there, we’ve got to work together and play as a team.”