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Football: North Forsyth's tough defensive line signals new era
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North Forsyth's defensive line was dominant last week against Harrison, and has helped the Raiders to a 2-0 start. From left, Dylan Lurie, Max Bryant, Chris Herock. - photo by David Roberts

Dylan Lurie, Max Bryant and Chris Herock.

Meet North Forsyth’s Swiss army knife.

Lurie, Bryant and Herock make up North’s three-man defensive line, which so far this season owns 15 tackles, 5 ½ sacks and 4 ½ tackles for loss. On top of that, the Raiders are outscoring their opponents 45-12 and have allowed only one touchdown on offense.

Most importantly, North is 2-0.

Against Harrison last week, North’s defense rose to the occasion time and time again. The Raiders held last year’s Class 6A state champions to just 196 total yards, sacking quarterback Tripp Richardson six times and forcing three turnovers.

For North Forsyth head coach Robert Craft, his defensive line’s maturation has been years in the making.

“It’s no surprise for us that those guys have been playing so well these first two games,” Craft said. “We knew coming in that for us to be good, that was going to have to be a cornerstone of our team, for sure. They’ve played really well, and they’ve worked really hard for that success so far.”

But it goes back even further than that.

When Craft was hired in 2016, his goal was to develop a physical defensive line that could compete with the best teams in the state.

“Well, you look at every level of football, doesn’t matter if it’s high school, college or NFL, every successful football team is really good on the defensive line. It is a game-changer,” Craft said. “That’s why Alabama and Clemson have been so good – the Rams were so good a few years ago with that front they had. You go through every level, and I think championship football starts with those guys, because they affect the run game and they affect pressuring the pass.”

Sure enough, North’s big-bodied trio can impose their will on opposing quarterbacks, even when they don’t get the sack.

Bryant (7), Lurie (5) and Herock (4) have combined for 16 quarterback hurries this season, and North owns 22 as a team.

“I think a good word to describe us is Swiss army knife,” Lurie said. “I think we can do anything – we can play anywhere on the defensive front.”

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North’s base defensive front is a 3-3-5, a scheme that gives the Raiders three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

But the versatility of North’s three defensive linemen allows for some creativity from Craft and the Raiders’ coaching staff.

“I think our strength there is that we shift in and out of that front,” Bryant said. “We go from a three-front to walking down a backer and having a four-man front, so I think all of us have the ability to play on the edge or play inside, and I think that’s one of our strengths, is we can all be easily maneuvered around the front.”

Harrison went 15-0 last season, scoring 589 points and averaging nearly 40 points per contest.

Still, Lurie was confident North had enough to slow down the Hoyas.

“The last couple years, the three of us have worked every Sunday outside of here – in the winter, in the spring, in the summer – just working on pass rush,” Lurie said. “I knew that going to war with these guys, we’d be OK.”

The three players have taken it upon themselves to grow into Craft’s vision, but are quick to credit defensive coordinator Chris Wagner and defensive line coach Brian Dameron.  

“Obviously, it’s been a culture change. Whenever Coach Wagner got here, he gave us an identity,” Lurie said. “We have a defensive identity. We know what we want to do up front – we want to move, we want to out-physical everybody and we want to run to the football. He gave us an identity, and before that, we didn’t have an identity on defense. We were just 11 guys out there.”

Wagner, who served as Parkview’s defensive coordinator for nearly a decade, helped craft a defense that held opponents to 24 points per game last season, the lowest mark since 2013.

So far this season, opponents are averaging six points per game against North.

“If we do something wrong, he’ll take the blame,” Herock said of Wagner. “But if we do something good, he always gives us the credit. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Herock played last year as a freshman but has taken on a larger role this season.

Even as a rookie, Herock managed 29 total tackles last year, including 5 ½ tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

“Last year was kind of my introduction of going versus much bigger people and much better skill, of course,” Herock said. “It was a welcome when you go to practice and you’re going against someone that’s a lot bigger than you and a lot stronger than you, but you kind of learn to adapt to it.”

Against Alcovy, Herock tallied an impressive three sacks and recovered a fumble.

“It’s taken us some years to get to where we feel like we have to be to have guys who are truly difference-makers,” Craft said. “At the high school level, you have a couple guys like that and you can quickly find yourself being pretty good on defense. They now help your linebackers be really productive because they’re getting double- and triple-teamed at times.”

Patrick Corrigan is one of those linebackers. He had 14 ½ tackles for loss last year as a sophomore and is the team’s leading tackler (14) through two games this season.

Aaron Griffin is another productive linebacker, making 11 stops so far this year, including 10 solo tackles and two sacks.

Craft sees Corrigan as an old-school middle linebacker, while Griffin’s speed and agility represents a new shift in the linebacker position.

“He’s more of your modern-day linebacker,” Craft said of Griffin. “What safeties used to be are now linebackers. Aaron runs really well and he’s one of the fastest guys on our team – very physical. So, he fits right into what Coach Wagner wants to do with our defense as far as pressure.”

Aaron Redd and Eli Edwards typically spell Lurie, Bryant and Herock at defensive line, keeping the three players fresh.

Craft said scheduling a defending state champion wasn’t necessarily a popular decision. The move paid off, though, and the win allowed Craft to take stock in how much the program has grown over the past five years.

“It’s a game where, quite frankly, the third quarter was a huge turning point in my opinion for our program,” Craft said. “I look back at that game, and in the third quarter, we played just terrible on offense – we couldn’t move the ball. They hit off an explosive play for their one touchdown. My first couple years, I think it would have just started going downhill for us. But I think our guys have learned how to handle that adversity and respond. We crawled right back in it, got a couple things fixed and were able to overcome that.”