CALHOUN, Ga. - It was nearly a year ago when most of the members of the current Calhoun High School football team's defense got a taste of south Georgia football.
It didn't go down well.
The Yellow Jackets, on their way to the Class AA state championship, built a big early lead on visiting Brooks County and, as coach Hal Lamb is accustomed to doing, had their second and third-team players in midway through the third period. Brooks, which happens to be the Jackets' quarterfinal opponent Friday, put up three late scores on the reserves in what turned out to be a 43-30 final.
The lessons learned that night and early this season have helped the current Calhoun defense go from extremely green to a unit ready to do its part to defend the title.
"One of the best things we do here is to get guys playing time whenever we can," Calhoun defensive coordinator Ricky Ross said. "That was a rough experience for those guys, but I absolutely believe it helped them. You just can't play against that type of speed until you've seen it."
Ten starters graduated off that defense, and though Calhoun began the season with impressive wins over Ridgeland, Dalton and Carrollton, the defense gave up 35, 41 and 35 points. There was more than a little concern in a community spoiled in recent seasons by standout defenses.
"We knew it was going to be a trying year with so many new starters, and we lost two of those early in the season with injury," Lamb said. "They could have gotten down on themselves after those first three games, but those were three very good offenses. Since then they've gotten better each week."
The unit's lone returning starter, senior cornerback Donnell Anthony, spend most of the early season keeping the new starters from losing confidence.
"We have three sophomores on the field, and it took some time for them to believe they could get the job done. So I just tried to be a leader and remind them they were good players," Anthony said. "People were telling us early that we weren't very good, but we got together and talked about it and everyone realized we had each others' backs. We've been a different team since then."
Among the most improved defenders are lineman Hunter Padgett, linebacker Fields Chapman and safety Carter Edwards, while guys like Jackson Brumlow and Sebastian Willer have provided steady, physical play. Since the third game the starters have allowed no more than one touchdown a game and have given up just 17 points in two playoff wins.
"It's a testament to our kids and their work ethic," Ross said. "They were worried about being able to keep up with the standard of defense we've set, but they've done that. We're really blessed at Calhoun to have kids that won't settle for average."