Calhoun’s defense has relied heavily this season on their playmakers at linebacker and in the secondary to change the momentum of games with big tackles in space, fumble recoveries, interceptions or pass deflections. But a group that is often overlooked is the one that holds it all together. They are the “glue” on the defensive side of the ball according to Calhoun head coach Hal Lamb.
That group is the defensive line. The trio of linemen at the forefront of the Jackets’ 3-5-3 defense are all seniors, and they all take their jobs extremely seriously game in and game out. Nose tackle CJ Fuller and ends Zeke Nance and Brice Craig may not always get the big performances on the stat sheet or their name in the paper, but those that have watched this team this season and know football are well aware that without their stellar effort, the defense as a whole would not being playing near the level they are.
“Those three have played well all season,” said Lamb. “They are the glue on defense, and they do everything that they are asked to do by the coaches. The tough things they do allow others to get the glory, but they just keep going about their business every week.”
Fuller is the most experienced player of the three with their hand in the turf as he is now in his third season starting in the middle of the Jackets’ defensive line, Nance has made his share of plays over the past two seasons starting and Craig has come on strong as a senior after earning the starting job early this season. Craig, who is coming off a five-tackle, three-sack, one tackle-for-loss performance in the Jackets’ 28-20 victory over Monroe Area last Friday, said the defensive line group has tried to stay consistent all season, but have tried to take it to an even higher level in the playoffs.
“Our whole defensive line has been playing well and doing whatever we need to do,” said Craig. “We work well together, and we’re all seniors so we know this is it for us and if we mess up or don’t give everything we have, it could be over. We try to do what we need to do to help the rest of the defense out, whether that is knocking the offensive line off the ball or getting penetration, we know we have to do that so the guys behind us can make plays.”
Nance echoed those remarks about the high-level the defensive line has gotten to over the past few weeks.
“I think our defensive line has stepped up and really peaked during the playoffs,” said Nance. “We’re focused on doing what we need to do to help our team and get that ring. I feel like us doing our job allows the defense to have success at every level.”
Nance leads the group in tackles with 43 total (31 solo) to go along with 11 tackles-for-loss and four sacks. Bolstered by his performance in the second round last week, Craig now has the most sacks among the trio with six to go along with 33 total tackles, five tackles-for-loss and one forced fumble. Fuller also has big numbers at the nose with 33 tackles (14 solo), four tackles-for-loss and two sacks.
Fuller said he’s seen the unit raise their level late in the season as well, and it hasn’t only been in the game.
“We’ve gotten better and better as the season has gone one, and we’re really practicing with more intensity than we ever have too,” said Fuller. “Every week now, everything is at stake so we’ve got to go out with a bang. It’s do-or-die, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get to the top.”
Fuller added that the position he and his two defensive lineman brethren may not always be pretty, but they take pride in doing the dirty work.
“We like to clog it up for the offensive line on the other side, and that makes it easier for our linebackers to make plays,” said Fuller. “They run around and make the big tackles and big plays, and we put our hands in the dirt to allow them to be able to do that.”
No matter who gets the attention, the goal remains the same for the entire defense and the whole team and that is to get to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Class AAA State Championship Game in a few weeks. The next step along that road to get there is a long trip to play Liberty County on Friday.
“We’re one team, and we work well together to have success,” said Craig. “We’re all a family. If we keep doing the job as a defensive line, and everyone else does their job and has each other’s back, I think we can go all the way.”