Gallagher column: West secondary faces biggest test
MOUNT ULLA — They were saying it after Week 1 and they’re still saying it going into Week 16’s state championship game.
The weak link of the West Rowan defense is its secondary.
If Garrett Crowe is reading this, he might be smiling right now. He’s the record-breaking quarterback for the Havelock Rams, who take on West Rowan Saturday in Chapel Hill for the 3A state title.
But as defensive coordinator David Hunt pointed out, being the weakest link on West’s defense isn’t all that bad.
“The defensive line has been outstanding,” Hunt said. “The linebackers have played very, very well. It’s like finishing second runner up in the Miss America contest. It doesn’t mean you’re ugly.”
When the season began, all eyes were on the defensive backs — the ones leaving.
There weren’t many secondaries boasting the talent of Dominique Noble, Eric Cowan and Trey Mashore. All are now playing in college, with Noble at Georgia Tech and other two in the Division II ranks.
So Hunt and assistant defensive backs coach Tim Dixon greeted names like Harvey Landy, Trey Cuthbertson, Zeke Blackwood, Najee Tucker and Demetrius Davidson.
Hunt remembers the 21-14 loss in the season opener to Mooresville that broke a nation’s best 46-game win streak.
“We had one guy who had played a little on the varsity and one guy who had played a little on jayvee,” Hunt said. “When we lined up against Mooresville, outside of 7-on-7, they really hadn’t seen football.”
West’s only other loss was to South Carolina power South Pointe 23-14, but it wasn’t the secondary’s fault. The Falcons turned it over five times and fumbled one ball into the end zone.
By Game 15, a 33-7 ripping of Burns in the Western final, Hunt finally said those magic words: “The best the secondary’s played.”
For a group of novices, West’s defensive backs sure do have a lot of names among the local leaders.
Landy leads Rowan County with four interceptions going into Saturday. Blackwood and Cuthbertson each have three. Davidson and Tucker each have two.
They’ve all made big plays at different times. No way the defensive backfield could contain Concord’s B.J. Beecher in the third round, right? But there was Blackwood making a game-saving pick in final seconds. Against Burns last week, Cuthbertson was making big tackles. Cuthbertson is also an added bonus as a kick returner. He has three touchdowns on returns.
“It’s come a long way,” Hunt said of his secondary.
And now, it faces Crowe.
He has hit 209 of 307 passes for over 3,000 yards. Of those 307 passes, only 10 have landed in the arms of an opponent. Crowe has led Havelock to a playoff average of 59 points per game.
Crowe is a different quarterback than Burns’ Brandon Littlejohn, who West faced last week. Littlejohn was harassed into his worst passing game of the year, going 8 of 27 with two interceptions.
“(Crowe) has a real good arm and good feet,” complimented Hunt. “He doesn’t scramble to run downfield like the Littlejohn kid did last week. He’s more moving around, buying time to throw downfield. He’s very accurate.”
So what does West want to do? Make him throw by shutting down the run with its monstrous defensive line.
“Which is our game plan every week,” Hunt said. “Take away the run and make them one-dimensional.”
Hunt’s teaching and Dixon’s motivational tactics have brought this group together.
“It had to be more simple,” Hunt said. “Adjustments are a little more difficult, but they’re trying.”
And succeeding. West has given up 131 yards passing per game, but only 79 on the ground. Havelock will be more than happy to let Crowe sling it around.
“If we shut down the run with the front, that leaves them nothing to do but pass,” Hunt said.
Which means the West secondary will again be tested by a top-notch quarterback.
“They’ll get plenty of chances,” Hunt said.
Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.