Beyond the Scoreboard: Defense the key as Reynolds chases fourth state title in 19 years

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Beyond the Scoreboard: Defense the key as Reynolds chases fourth state title in 19 years (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

The pattern developed over a long season for Reynolds High football, a theme that has run through the program for several years.

A dominating offense put up touchdowns in bunches, a suffocating defense strangled opponents, the result was 49-0 or 56-7 or some similar numbers of routs.

But as the play into the postseason deepened, the opposition grew stouter and the numbers decreased.

The now 13-1 Rockets are still winning, but the days of exploding scoreboards has lessened.

But what remains is a strong defense that continues to keep teams out of the end zone.

As No. 2 seed Reynolds plays for a Western Regional title Friday night at home vs. No. 12 Sun Valley (11-3) in the semifinal round of the state 3AA playoffs, a familiar tale emerges of what it’s going to take to get to the program’s first state championship game since 2009.

A very talented quarterback stands in the way of the Rockets’ drive to Durham for a berth in the title game on Dec. 9 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

In three playoff games, the Rockets have allowed 6, 7 and 7 points.

While the offense has been limited to 21 and 17 points the last two weeks in wins over Southwest Guilford and South Iredell, the unit directed by defensive coordinator Bryan Craig has remained tough.

“I have to give credit to coach Craig and his staff for making sure that game-plan wise we were doing the right thing and of doing great job of coaching our kids,” said Rockets’ head coach Shane Laws.

“And our kids have just played great on defense. They are really getting after it every Friday night.”

Middle linebacker Frank Torres is a 6-3, 220-pound beast who is over the 120-tackle mark for the second straight season, with 30 tackles got losses in that span.

Eli Hembree (103 tackles) and Coleman Minter (94) are also making a lot of hits, and Laws credits a front seven that is bigger in heart than size.

“It’s like we play seven linebackers,” said Laws. “Frank is like the captain of the defense, and he has a really high football IQ. This is the third year he has started for us, and he’s our leader.

“And one of the reasons our linebackers are making so many tackles is they are staying clean, because our defensive front is doing their job.”

Last week the Rockets were tested against Brady Pope, a quarterback who had thrown for more than 10,000 career yards.

And while he posted good-looking numbers (23-of-40 for 286 yards), he was sacked seven times and his offense found the end zone just once.

“We made him uncomfortable with our pressure, and he never seemed to really be himself or get in a rhythm,” said Laws.

“We have to do that again this week.”

This week means Sam Howell, a highly-recruited quarterback from Sun Valley who is not only a gifted thrower (2,910 yards, 34 scores) but also the Spartans’ leading rusher (1,409 yards, 18 TDs).

Blitzing a running quarterback could create big gains off busted plays, but Laws said his defensive philosophy won’t change.

“We’re going to bring pressure, that’s who we are and what we do. We’re aggressive and we want to play downhill. We let our athletes be athletes and make the other team’s offense uncomfortable.”

Getting it done on defense is a Reynolds tradition, dating back to era of coach Bobby Poss that included 4-A state titles in 1999 and 2002 and continuing through the ’09 championship team under Laws that included future Notre Dame linebacker Ben Councell.

To do that again, the Reynolds defense will have to do the job against Howell.

“We’re going to go hard and go fast, but we have to be in control,” said Laws. “This kid (Howell) is big and strong and he reminds me of Tim Tebow, running through tackles. We have to wrap him up when we get to him.”