The Porter Ridge football team’s defense, known to the Pirates as the “dark side,” has developed a strong reputation over the past four-plus years. And as the Pirates remain excellent contenders for the N.C. Class 4A state championship game for the second consecutive season, this year’s Porter Ridge defense might be the best one yet.
And the reason, said coach Blair Hardin, boils down to the same trait that all successful football teams share.
“The thing we talk about on both sides (of the ball) is we must win the battle up front,” Hardin said. “Everything starts up front. In any game, it’s about how the guys up front play.
“Our strongest and our fastest guys are all up front on our defensive line. We have to have those guys to put us in control of the game because they’re strong, they’re fast and they’re experienced. We’re fortunate to have four or five guys up there that can play.”
And, boy, have they played.
Porter Ridge’s front four – featuring ends Avery Worsham and Luke Bayly, and tackles Ryan Dilworth and Devyn Cunningham – has spearheaded one of the state’s top defenses this season. The Pirates have allowed just 68 points through 11 games, a clip of 6.18 per outing. That ranks second among Class 4A teams in the state between No. 1 Matthews Butler and No. 3 Charlotte Mallard Creek, two teams considered among the best in the nation. Even better, the Pirates have allowed just 3.3 points per game at home, an important fact with Asheville Reynolds (9-2) set to visit on Friday, Nov. 9.
The Pirates defense also was a strength last year after allowing an average of fewer than 16 points per game while Porter Ridge marched all the way to the Class 4A title game. But with the graduation of end Justin Oldja and tackle Shane Burns, the Pirates entered the 2012 season having to replace their identity up front since the departed duo’s strength along the line would be nearly impossible to replace.
Instead, the coaching staff slid Bayly from linebacker to defensive end, while JV call-up Cunningham filled the empty tackle slot. As the season has developed, freshman Drew Lair has earned valuable minutes in the rotation, while offensive lineman Ethan Suzenvich and Pavel Podolskiy have added depth.
With all the turnover and doubt surrounding the returning players this season, Bayly said he realized the defense’s potential, especially up front, after the Pirates went to Kannapolis and beat one of the state’s most explosive teams, A.L. Brown, 41-14. Porter Ridge held the Wonders to just 54 passing yards and 270 on the ground – well below their 362 yard-per-game average.
“We knew we weren’t going to be as strong physically up front,” said Bayly, “but we knew we were going to be more athletic. We knew we were going to be faster, and we knew we had that to our advantage.”
That athleticism has represented itself in the stat book. Worsham and Dilworth lead the team with six sacks apiece, with Cunningham next at five, followed by Bayly’s four. As a group they’ve added 19 quarterback hurries.
But perhaps a better indicator of the unit’s versatility is the fact that three of the four linemen rank among the team’s top six tacklers; Worsham is fourth with 47 tackles, followed by Dilworth (fifth at 40) and Bayly (sixth at 34). Cunningham is eighth with 24.
“Our guys, with their strength and their quickness, they do a great job of getting in position to make plays,” said Hardin.
The defensive line play also has allowed the Pirates’ linebacking corps and secondary – each formidable units in their own right – to shine. The linebackers have enjoyed fewer obstructions from the opposing offensive linemen as they try to account for the speed of the Pirates’ line while opposing quarterbacks have rarely had the time to sit back and pick their targets.
In all, the Pirates have picked off 17 passes, led by Jarrick Robbins and Marcus Freeman, who have three interceptions each, while linebackers Austin Moore (66 tackles), Bruce Randall (60), Nick Vagnone (53) and safety Chris Duffy (30) have been free to collect ball carriers fortunate enough to get past the line.
Now, entering Week 13, with the players settled into their roles, the Porter Ridge defense seems to be reaching its peak, as 61 of its 68 points allowed came in the first six games of the season. The Pirates have shut out three consecutive opponents and four of their last five, with a 7-0 loss to Weddington being the lone exception.
Such dominating play, said Hardin, has allowed the rest of the team, namely the offense, time to find its own rhythm, especially with new quarterbacks Isaiah Hicklin and Zach Danielson finding their footing.
“We have that mind-set all week that we’re going to have to be the ones that make a few plays, the ones that get the offense the ball back as many times as they need to put the ball into the end zone,” Cunningham said. “That’s where we are. It’s a weekly mentality, no matter who we’re playing.”
Added Worsham: “We really take pride in that. We always say, ‘Defense wins,’ and I really believe that. I feel like if the other team doesn’t score and we can stop them when we have the opportunity, we should stop them.
“As long as we come to play on special teams and we stop them, good things should happen this year.”
And the less stress placed on Porter Ridge’s inexperienced quarterbacks’ shoulders – as well as the coaching staff’s – the better, said Hardin.
“When you can stop the run and play good special teams and just kind of manage the game on offense, it really makes easier calls for me to put Hicklin in a good spot,” Hardin said. “Man, that really lets the offense focus on (thinking), ‘I just have to manage the game and distribute the ball to the receivers and running backs. I don’t have to win every play with my decision-making. I know if I make a mistake, then we have four guys up front defensively that are going to make a play at some point of time.’
“Those four or five guys really complement things and put us in a good situation with ball control.”
While the unit has certainly been solid this season, Bayly said he and his teammates still want to prove the Pirates defense is more than that.
“We were watching film this summer, and Coach (Michael) Hertz asked us, ‘Do you want to be special?’” recalled Bayly. “’A special defense isn’t somebody that comes out there and plays average every game and gives up 21 points. A special defense is somebody who goes out there every play and plays like it’s their last.’
“We really want to prove we’re not just an average defense. We want to prove we’re a special defense and that we can do something great.”
And, like everything else, that has started up front.