Perhaps nowhere more than the offensive line is football's "next man up" cliche more applicable and true. Almost every play is a mess of bodies drawn into unnatural positions, with sprinting defenders diving high and low, and teammates can be as dangerous as the opposition. Players get hurt, and knee braces can only do so much.
The North Forsyth offensive line didn't expect the concept to come into play like this, though. The Raiders were set to have one of the county's most powerful offenses this season, with most of their skill position players coming back, ready to improve in their second season in head coach Robert Craft's spread offense. The offensive line was set to bring the majority of its starters back and have three seniors lined up.
But that group of three was soon was cut down to one. Rising seniors Jake Murrah and Colt Walls, who was an all-county second team honoree in 2016, left the program before spring ball started, turning the line into one of the team's younger, less experienced units.
"They were two big-time starters for us," junior right tackle Jeremy James said of Murrah and Walls.
So far, however, those sudden departures haven't been noticeable with the Raiders. North walloped Forsyth Central 58-0 to open Region 5-7A play and put 58 on Pickens County in non-region play. Quarterback Ben Bales set a school record when he passed for 397 yards against Johns Creek, and running back Bryson Trigg had 242 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Pickens and five more scores against Central.
"It is a young group and a unique group," Craft said. "They've done a really good job. I think they work really well together. There's probably not one star among them, but they work really good as a unit."
If there's anything close to a star in the group, it's probably James. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior is one of the most imposing linemen in the county and holds an offer from North Carolina State. He started at right guard as a sophomore but has shifted this year to right tackle, giving him the responsibility for protecting Bales' front side, often in one-on-one matchups.
One blue-chipper does not ensure a competent line, though. It was clear before the start of spring practice that Murrah and Walls weren't coming back, so the remaining linemen had to put in extra work to make up for their absences.
"(You need to) be in the film room 24/7," said junior Brent Grab, the team's center. "You've got to know what the guy next to you's going to do, so you can play off him (and) he can play off you."
The group that has done that only contains one senior: left tackle Daniel Espinoza. Then there's James, Grab, junior right guard Ryan Foust, junior left guard Elijah Byrd and junior Harrison Allen, who shuffles between the guard and center spots.
The flexibility that the Raiders have with Allen applies to the rest of the line, too, which is one reason Craft thinks the group has responded so well this year.
"Coach (Cecil) Flowe plays a lot of guys up front, rotates a lot of guys, which is unusual for an offensive line, and we continue to do that this year," Craft said. "...Last year we experienced a bunch of injuries up front, and this year, he's continued to rotate guys. So maybe when a guy's out for a little bit, he's able to get another guy to step right back in, and that's really carried through."
With that preparation, two unexpected departures, even from seniors, aren't a death blow. The Raiders' performance so far has shown that, and this Friday's game against Lambert is another opportunity to do so. This particular matchup is one that North has highlighted heading into this year: In 2016, the Raiders led 33-20 at halftime, but the offense sputtered after halftime and scored just seven points to the Longhorns' 28.
North knows that this game could well be a pivotal one in their bid for the playoffs, and their efforts on offense will revolve largely around the line. Right now, that isn't something that will make the Raiders nervous.
"They've worked really, really hard," Craft said. "They don't get all the record-setting headlines, but man, they've done a great job."