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Football: Six contenders for Defensive Player of the Year
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South Forsyth's C.J. Ford goes for a tackle during the War Eagles' game against North Forsyth on Oct. 19, 2018 at South Forsyth High School. Photo by Paul Ward.

In 2017, then-sports editor (and now-managing editor) Brian Paglia made an astute observation: The men in the trenches seem to get the glory – from us, at least. Defensive linemen and linebackers seemed predisposed, perhaps due to their disposition towards the home run plays, the sacks and tackles for loss and whatnot, to winning All-County Player of the Year award.

At the time, Paglia felt that someone from the secondary could emerge, but things have gone back to normal since: South defensive end Ryan LaFlamme took the honor in 2017, and Jamal Camp, another lineman for the War Eagles, won it in 2018.

And upon surveying the returning talent for 2019, it seems as likely as ever that the top defender will come from the first two levels of the defense. The ranks at linebacker look especially deep, with a few teams returning multiple standouts from that position in 2018. And while a ballhawking safety or lockdown corner could certainly spring into the discussion come the autumn months, it would probably come as a surprise.

Here are six players who could contend for All-County Defensive Player of the Year.

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West Forsyth's Eli Orr (58) and teammates wrap up a Woodstock player Friday, Aug. 18, 2017.

Eli Orr, West Forsyth, Sr.

Orr has a big opportunity last year when he moved over to middle linebacker, giving him the responsibility of helping to set and direct the team’s defense. That position also put him in a convenient spot to make a ton of tackles, which he did, with his sky-high total of 140 on the season leading all county defensive players. He isn’t as much of a big-play threat as others, recording just one tackle for loss in 2018, but that’s not to say Orr’s steady contributions aren’t big in their own way.

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West Forsyth's Jack Hughes makes a tackle during the Wolverines' game against Peachtree Ridge on Sept. 14, 2018 at Peachtree Ridge High School. - photo by Michael Chung

Jack Hughes, West Forsyth, Sr.

Statistically, Hughes was the big-play counterpart to Orr on the second level of the Wolverines’ defense in 2018. He led the Wolverines with 12 tackles for loss and had seven sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Hughes also saw some limited action on the offensive side of the ball for West as a junior, getting five carries and catching a pass, but he was one of the most productive defensive players in general in the county in 2018 and will hope to retain that status as a senior. West has plenty of important contributors to replace on defense, but their strong front line in the middle is a good base on which to build.

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Denmark's Nick Carozza heads toward the sideline after recovering a fumble during the Danes' game against Cherokee Bluff on Aug. 24, 2018 at Denmark High School. - photo by Ian Frazer

Nick Carozza, Denmark, Sr.

Carozza was one of the strongest two-way contributors on the Danes in their inaugural season. He was a leader on defense, with 73 tackles, including eight for a loss, along with two sacks, two forced fumbles and even a blocked punt. He also saw time as a tight end, catching nine passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns, including the score that capped off the Danes’ thrilling comeback win against White County. Carozza has attracted a good deal of Division I interest this summer, picking up offers from Bowling Green State, Air Force, Richmond and New Hampshire, among others.

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South Forsyth's C.J. Ford (right) and Taft Hilton (left) converge on Lambert quarterback Peyton Rich during a game on Oct. 5, 2018 at Lambert High School. Photo by Paul Ward.

C.J. Ford, Denmark, Sr.

Ford was part of the main cast for the South Forsyth team that went undefeated in regulation in the 2017 regular season, and then he was even better for the War Eagles in 2018, totaling 95 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and 4.5 sacks. Like a few other big names in the county, Ford saw an opportunity at Denmark to legitimately contend for a state title, and he jumped over to the Danes, where he’ll join a linebacker corps already deep in talent and experience. Ford has offers from Illinois State, Eastern Kentucky and Wofford, among others.

Mitch Weber, Forsyth Central, Sr.

Weber is the player on this list with the longest time between high school snaps: He hasn’t seen one in an official game since 2017, as he tore his ACL in Central’s preseason scrimmage against Meadowcreek this past fall. And while the Bulldogs eventually overcame that loss, reaching the playoffs for the first time as a member of Class 7A, it was a very significant one at the time. Weber is big – listed at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds – athletic and a proven producer at linebacker, having totaled 66 tackles, with 12 going for a loss, in 2017. The loss of big-time names like Tristen Rose and Jackson Leak on defense has left the Bulldogs with some work to do in getting back to the playoffs, and Weber recapturing his past excellence – or even improving on it – would be a big boost to their chances. Numerous Division I programs have their eye on Weber, despite his long absence from game action.

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Forsyth Central's Alex Szakacs jumps on top of a pile during the Bulldogs' game against Cass on August 31, 2018 at Forsyth Central High School. - photo by Ben Hendren

Alex Szakacs, Forsyth Central, Sr.

One player easing Weber’s absence for the Bulldogs in 2018 was the emergence of Szakacs, who played in eight games and totaled 31 tackles in 2017, on the defensive line. The Bulldogs didn’t score much last year – even with their 3-2 region record, they had just 81 points and gave up 137 to region opponents – so defense was an absolute imperative, and Szakacs’ big production, which earned him an All-County first team nod, was a crucial part of it. He had a relatively modest 48 tackles, but also added three sacks, six quarterback hurries and broke up four passes.

Others to watch: Jax Weaver, South Forsyth, Sr.; Dylan Fairchild, West Forsyth, Jr. Zach Burchfield, Denmark, Sr.; Arthur Marsden, Denmark, Sr.; Patrick Deans, Lambert, Sr.