BUFORD — Despite coming off a state title run, second-year Buford coach Bryant Appling knew before the 2020 season was slated to begin there was one huge priority they needed to address.
“We have to develop depth along the (offensive) line,” he said during a preseason interview in the summer. “That is a high priority for us.”
A dominant Wolves front is not usually an issue most seasons. But with a move up to Class 6A, Bryant said the margin narrows the higher up you climb the classification ladder.
“The teams get bigger and deeper the higher up you go so you have to have quality depth (on the line) to be able to compete,” he said. “We have a solid core of guys but we will need more.”
Seniors Caleb Archer and Jacob Smith, who recently signed with Army, returned to anchor the line. Fellow seniors Nick King, TJ Lowe, and Devon Burwell also saw action in 2019. But juniors Jackson Favors and Sho Mitchell were expected to fill in the gaps and provide relief whenever and wherever necessary.
It’s safe to say Appling and the Wolves met their desires. Buford finds itself back into the state finals, this time taking on Lee County for the Class 6A title. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday night at Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta.
The play up front by Smith and Company has more than exceeded expectations. Despite the move up and the step up in overall competition, Buford comes into the contests tops in 6A in offense (536 points, 41.2 ppg). They are third in 6A in rushing (246.9 yards/game) with Gabe Ervin Jr. (979 yards, 17 TD) and Victor Venn 1,152 yards, 18 TD) reaping the benefits. They piled up 302 rushing yards vs.Valdosta in a 45-26 semifinal win, with more than 200 coming in the second half as they pulled away in the second half.
However, the Buford hogs have not faced a defensive unit as productive as the Trojans. Lee County, and mainly its front-7, have produced a whopping 128 total tackles for loss, including 44 1/2 sacks on the season. That averages out to 9.9 TFL and almost 3 1/2 sacks a game.
Senior defensive end Eric Sanders has 16 TFL, with 9 sacks, to lead a very tough three-man line. Junior DE Malik Brackins has 49 23 TFL, including 6 sacks.
But the heart of the defense is a big, fast linebacking group, led by junior Juwan Bailey, who has 62 tkls, 27 for loss, including 15 sacks. Senior Baron Hopson leads the team in tackles with 134 with 14 TFL, including 3 sacks. Senior DB AJ Patrick (7 interceptions) leads a hawkish secondary that has 17 picks on the season.
Appling said to limit the damage from just one guy, like Bailey or Brackins, would not be the answer.
“Our (O-line) will have to do their job up front. Lee County is way too good to be able to focus on just one guy,” Appling said. “They have the best front-7 we’ve seen all year. It should be a great matchup all night. Hopefully we’ll be ready for them.”
Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio said it was perhaps the one matchup he was looking forward to watching.
“There are great matchups all over the field. But the highly touted Buford (offensive line) against our (defensive) front should be something to see,” Fabrizio said.
Something may have to give. Buford is the No. 2 team in scoring in Class 6A (41.2 ppg) while the Trojans are third in defense giving up just 13.6 ppg on the season.