As Scotland’s varsity starting roster began to take shape over the summer, coach Richard Bailey praised the abundance of “skill position athletes” at his disposal. He also expressed concern over the amount of depth available on the offensive and defensive lines, which he cited as a weakness heading into the season.
True to Bailey’s pre-season observations, the skill position players of the 9-1 Fighting Scots have showcased their talent all season long if statistics are any indication. On the defensive side of things, Scotland has held opponents to an average of just 10.2 points per game, with four players registering more than 60 total tackles in the regular season: Artemis Robinson (114), Chris Moss (95), Malik Diggs (70) and Robert McKoy (65). The defense has averaged nearly four turnovers a game as well.
But throughout the year, it’s been the defensive front of the Fighting Scots that has been the catalyst for the big plays made by their skill position counterparts.
“We knew we had to step up as starters because we didn’t have a lot of depth,” said Scotland senior lineman Ed Cain, who defensive line coach David Hunt has called the “leader” of his front-three. Along with Cain, four other lineman have been rotated into the 3-4 starting lineup throughout the season: Tyran Murphy, Shy’Keim Oliver, Avery Simmons and Sedrick Sturdivant.
“We answered the challenge this season because we’re family and learned to become a cohesive unit,” he said.
The 3-4 defensive scheme that has proved so dominant this year for the Fighting Scots is about reading and reacting quickly to the ball, which allows the speed of Scotland’s linebackers and secondary to shine through.
The job of Scotland’s defensive line in this formation is not necessarily to cause interior pressure and wreak havoc on the backfield, though they’ve certainly done that at points this season. Scotland’s five-man rotation has combined for eight of the Scots’ 16 combined sacks in this season.
Their role in the defense, rather, is to create confusion in the trenches and force the offense to bounce the football outside of the pocket, right into the waiting arms of Robinson, Moss and the rest of Scotland’s tackling machines.
It’s a role that the line has relished all year, and it’s spelled success on all fronts for the Fighting Scots.
“We’re not about making the plays, we’re about squeezing and compressing the running game of the other team into doing what we want them to do,” Hunt said. Prior to this season, Hunt was the junior varsity head coach of the Fighting Scots who led his squad to three conference championships in his four seasons. This season was Hunt’s first-ever as a defensive line coach.
“These guys had a short time to get it together before the season started, but ever since the New Hanover loss we’ve steadily improved. It’s a credit to my guys that they recognized the importance of their role on the defense,” he said.
“All of us are on the same page in terms of the job we have to get done out there,” said Simmons, who is one of three starting lineman (along with Murphy and Oliver) that are current 11th graders. “It’s the linebackers and secondary’s job to make plays, we just have do our job and put them in the position to do what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
According to Sturdivant, the need for only three lineman on the field at a time has created healthy competition amongst the defensive front, which has helped inspire each player to give it their all.
“We’ve pushed each other all season long,” Sturdivant said. “Any one of us can be the starter at any given time, so it’s motivated us to be the best on the field both in practice and in games.”
Adherence to their assigned roles and motivations aside, Coach Bailey believes his defensive line has “answered the challenge” he laid down this summer, and is “proud of how far they’ve come.”
For Murphy, the front line has come full circle in less than a year’s time.
“I think we’ve made a good impression so far this season,” Murphy said. “For us, it was all about living up to not just our coaches’ standards, but our standards as well.”
And as the season approaches it’s endgame, Oliver recognizes that his job as a defensive lineman only gains importance once the playoffs begin Friday night.
“It starts with us and finishes with us,” Oliver said. “Each player is the other’s partner, and what we do affects everyone around us.”