You wouldn’t know it from looking on paper and you couldn’t tell it from watching last year’s team.
With just six returning starters on a defensive unit that was upset in the second round of the Class 1A state playoffs last season, no one knew Brantley’s defense would bond in an impressive manner to post nine shutouts this season.
“I don’t think you can ever predict the kind of year you’re going to have, based on your numbers,” Brantley coach David Lowery said, “but I think we had the right people back in the right places.”
Actually, the Bulldogs (14-0) will roll into this afternoon’s state championship matchup with Marion County (13-1) with the right players on both sides of the ball. Not since the undefeated Clay County teams from the mid-1990s has a team combined offense and defense so effectively.
The Bulldogs have scored 697 points, good for sixth all-time in the Alabama High School Athletic Association record books, and have posted nine shutouts, tied with several other teams (including Brantley’s 1993 squad) for fifth all-time.
But it is defense that is the heart and soul of the Crenshaw County school, taking a page from its head coach’s philosophy that utilizes speed and agility to promote gang tackling of opposing ball carriers.
“First of all, coach Lowery’s always going to have a good defense,” two-way tackle Taylor Driggers said. “He’s so smart, he dissects film so well, he will have you prepared. Really, it was the preparation in the offseason. We got bigger, we got faster, we got stronger, and you could start to see it coming together in spring training.
“You really saw it culminate when we started shutting people out. You’d hit people in the mouth and you’d see backs that didn’t want to get the ball. A lot of fumbles and turnovers just because we’re hitting people in the mouth.”
Neighboring rival Luverne scored six points in the season opener and Highland Home scored 12 points a month later (six against the starters), but those were the only points scored against the starting defensive unit in the regular season.
“Any time we give up points, we’re not happy about that,” Driggers said. “Coach Lowery says if they don’t score, they can’t win. We like that shutout number. We like keeping it at zero.”
Lowery attributes some of the success to senior leadership — the Bulldogs have 16 seniors, including seven in a starting position on defense and 10 on offense — but he still had to find the right pieces of the puzzle when replacing a pair of defensive backs, a linebacker and a defensive lineman from last year’s team.
“Last year, we had a really strong defense and we had a lot of the same people coming back,” senior linebacker and tight end Zane Johnson said, “plus some younger ones that have stepped up like (linebacker) Doug Salter. We just had a lot of people coming back and were pretty much expecting this.”
The Bulldogs have been equally impressive in the playoffs, pitching shutouts against Fruitdale, Billingsley and last week against McIntosh. A 20-14 win over Linden in the quarterfinals provided Brantley the type of challenge he believes he will face this afternoon from the Red Raiders, who boast three 1,000-yard rushers in a wing-T attack.
“Linden posed a very serious problem, too,” Lowery said. “They were extremely fast and I think had one of the best quarterbacks that we’ve ever seen. We just have to play assignment football.”
Justin Sanderson leads Marion County with 1,205 rushing yards (7.1 yards per carry), but there’s also Dorryl Swannigan with 1,031 (12.1 yards per carry) and DeShawn Riebeshel with 1,001 (9.8). Even quarterback Sean Wallace has 953 rushing yards, averaging 10.3 yards per carry.
“I expect them to be confident,” Driggers said. “Coach (Rusty) Funk seems like a pretty confident guy from interviews he’s been in. He seems like he has a bit of an air or swagger about him. But we’re pretty confident, too. We’ve got a bit of a swagger about us, too. This defense definitely has a swagger. We feel like we can stop anybody.”
Johnson and Driggers were among six Bulldogs who watched from the sidelines in 2009 as Brantley defeated Hackleburg for the state championship. Johnson offers a simple formula for beating the Red Raiders today.
“If we can do short passes and then run and be able to control the line of scrimmage, we’ll do good,” Johnson said. “They play a lot of ‘man’ (coverage), so our passing game should be open. Play-action should work.
“I’m expecting a physical game, just ground and pound between both teams. See who can control the line of scrimmage. Whoever can run the ball and control the line of scrimmage is going to win. It’s going to be a challenge and we look forward to facing it.”
Two teams with very explosive offenses. And if Brantley has its way, the game will be decided on the defensive side of the ball, a philosophy the players have known for most of their lives.
“I just think we’ve worked really hard on that side of the football this year,” Lowery said. “These kids have basically been running the same defense from junior high on up so since a lot of them are seniors, you could make a case this is their fifth or sixth year running the same defense.
“Any time you can keep a (coaching) staff together and work your junior high and run the same stuff, I think it pays dividends in the end.”