ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - A local rivalry will be renewed for the 27th time as Norcross travels to Suwanee to face North Gwinnett this Friday. Norcross (8-1) comes into the game as the Region 7 7A leader with a perfect record of 5-0, coming off a huge victory over then undefeated and No. 7 Peachtree Ridge (8-1).
The Blue Devils look to clinch the program’s 8th region title, and 7th under legendary coach Keith Maloof, with a win. However, North Gwinnett has dominated the series as of late, winning the last four meetings since 2017.
The Norcross offense will look to Air Force-commit quarterback AJ Watkins, who leads the team in both passing and rushing with 750 yards rushing and 656 yards passing. Along with running back Kevin Maven-Winchester, the Blue Devils have a terrifying rushing attack that has rushed for over 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns.
In the passing game, Watkins split time with David Mohammed and the pair have combined to pass for nearly 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns. The duo have spread the ball to many weapons, with eight different players catching at least one touchdown. The receiving corps is led by junior wide receiver Jamari Harrold, who recently received his first FBS offer from Toledo and has accumulated 306 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Norcross defense has been dominant this season. However, they have taken it to another level in region play, giving up only 6.2 points per game and shutting out three of their five opponents. The defense is led by a terrifying defensive front. Senior defensive linemen and Appalachian State-commit Jackson Bussey alongside sophomore star Carter Luckie, who holds offers from Georgia and Toledo, have combined for 44 tackles for loss. When talking about the strides the team has made throughout the season, coach Maloof pointed to a moment early in the season as the moment the team showed what they can be.
“You get into a game with Archer, who is much improved under Donte Williams,” said coach Maloof. “This was a defining moment in the development of our team. We were down 21-3 at the half, and there were a few touchdowns called back, so it was really a three-score game that they were dominating. However, the maturity of the team really showed out in the second half, and we were able to come back and win that game.”
While the defensive front gets much of the attention, the secondary has quietly shut down the opponents’ passing attacks. Led the trio of defensive backs with Cameron Robinson, Demario Manning and Lionel Burns who have combined for 34 pass deflections. They have also picked opposing quarterbacks off seven times, making opposing quarterbacks put the ball in small windows and punishing them for their mistakes.
The Bulldogs enter the matchup coming off a huge 62-0 victory over Discovery, their largest margin of victory since 2013. The season has seen its ups and downs under first-year head coach Eric Godfree, who came from Parkview where he had an successful tenure, winning two region titles and making the semifinals in 2019.
“The offense has shown remarkable progress,” said Godfree. “We only have three starting seniors, and overall, we lack extensive experience. With three sophomores starting on our offensive line, being young led to early growth and some initial growing pains.”
North Gwinnett’s offense, much like the Norcross defense, has progressed since the start of region play and averages 43 points per game. The offensive success has seen the growth of junior quarterback Ryan Hall, who has only thrown two interceptions through nine games. While some of their success can be attributed to Hall, other players have played a major role.
“We are now top 10 in the state in scoring, a lot of that has to do with an explosive quarterback that can run and throw very well,” said Godfree. “Our receivers have done a great job of being consistent on the field. They may not be winning over the top all the time, but they are consistent in their routes and location.
The rushing game has helped keep the Bulldog offense on schedule, with running back Julian Walters rushing for over 600 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Hall adds nearly 600 yards and 7 touchdowns. His ability to rush adds another wrinkle for the Norcross defense, especially the linebackers, to have to worry about.
The North Gwinnett defense, very much like the Norcross defense, is led by their defensive line. The defensive line has three players with FBS offers, only one of which is a senior.
Jaden Brock, Braxton Kyle and Cole FunderBurk, have terrorized opposing teams combining for 66 tackles for loss, 24 quarterback hurries, and 27 sacks. While the pass rush and sacks take center stage, their ability to disrupt the run game may be the most important aspect against the run heavy Norcross offense.
While the defensive line may be the best position group on the team, the secondary is still extremely talented. They are led by a trio of long defensive backs in sophomore Chauncy Davis Jr., junior Maleki Weedon and junior Chandler Jordan, who are all over 6-foot-2. They force opposing quarterbacks to make perfect throws while they are under pressure from the dominant defensive line.
“The secondary though, has progressed greatly from the beginning of the year to where they are now,” said Godfree. “They had some struggles in some coverages with some busted coverages. A lot of that had to do with some youth, but those guys have progressed greatly.”
You can watch the game live at 8 p.m. this Friday on the Peachtree Sports Network and on the Atlanta News First app.
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