Over the past several years, Cartersville’s defense has leaned primarily on a strong defensive line and a speedy linebacker corps. This year, though, the unit’s strength comes from the back, with a secondary that would rival the best in the state.
In an ideal world, the starting group of cornerbacks Marquail Coaxum and Devonte Ross and safeties Marko Dudley and Evan Slocum would have received a vast majority of the snaps. When they have played together, the unit has been able to shut down most passing attacks. Injuries, though, have left Cartersville shorthanded more often than not.
In a lot of ways, the defensive backfield has epitomized the Canes season — the good and the bad.
“It’s been a great strength of our defense for a couple of years with Marko and Marquail being three-year starters,” Cartersville head football coach Conor Foster said of the secondary. “Their chemistry on and off the field is an intangible that’s extremely important to our success. Those guys love each other, and they play for each other. They’re kind of the engine that drives our defense.”
The unit will again be at less than full strength this week, when the Canes host Woodward Academy in the Class 4A state quarterfinals at Weinman Stadium. In fact, Cartersville won’t be able to field its preferred starting secondary the rest of the season after Dudley was lost for the year with a shoulder injury.
Hearing of the premature end to Dudley’s senior season clearly hurt his teammates. Slocum even went so far as to wear Dudley’s No. 7 jersey the remainder of the year to honor his teammate, mentor and friend. But like the team has sort of been doing all season, the Canes (12-0) are ready to shuffle things around to fill in the gaps.
“He’s a hard-working individual, so it really hurt when he wasn’t able to play,” junior cornerback Sam Phillips said of Dudley. “We know Kolbe [Benham] can step up and Amarai [Orr] will even come in and play some safety. We have faith in our backups.”
Those backups (and the starters, for that matter) will be tested this week by the War Eagles, who will also enter with a 12-0 record. Quarterback Mike Wright has shown an ability to spread the ball around to several talented playmakers, and the running ability of Wright and Damari Alston could give Cartersville trouble in the open field.
However, the Canes believe in their system.
“We don’t look at it as a big game, we just look at it as the next game,” Coaxum said. “We just prepare the same way, play the same. If we play our way of defense, we know we’re going to be fine.”
And perhaps even more importantly, they also believe in their teammates. It’s what helped the group last year become a strength for the team despite Slocum and Ross being inexperienced sophomores alongside the veteran presence of Dudley and Coaxum.
“I just have a lot of trust in my players,” Slocum said, “and basically, I just had to worry about my job.”
It’s interesting, although probably not a coincidence, to see how similar some of the DBs are. The cornerbacks all seem to be high-energy guys, while the safeties appear a little more reserved. Despite the different personalties, Foster sees just how well the group comes together, on and off the field.
“Marko’s kind of the daddy of the group, a very mature young man,” Foster said. “A guy who loves this program, loves football and loves those guys. They’re all kind of his little brothers. He takes them under his wing — not just with football. They spend a lot of time chasing Marko around. He’s kind of the rock of the group. He doesn’t get too emotional one way or the other.
“The cornerbacks, Marquail and Devonte, they’re a little bit more emotional, for the good and the bad. They’re going to get a little more fired up when they make a big play. They get frustrated when they miss an opportunity to make a play. Evan, he’s a lot more wired like Marko. He’s very quiet, doesn’t say a whole lot. … To see Kolbe step up and step in, it’s a reflection of great leadership and his work ethic every day. Sam Phillips is another guy who has stepped into a prominent role in the secondary this year.”
Every main member of the secondary also sees reps on offense, mostly at wide receiver, with Ross and Phillips posting the two highest receiving totals on the team. Slocum was the team’s featured running back for a couple of games, but the injury to Dudley and return of previously injured running back Quante Jennings saw him focus more on defense last week.
Between the injuries suffered and playing on both sides of the ball, the already tough to manage rotation could have become an even bigger challenge to overcome. Ross, though, believes the coaching staff deserves a lot of the credit for making sure it has never really turned into an issue.
“I feel like it really wasn’t that hard,” the junior said. “Like coach says, ‘Everybody plays a role on this team.’ We know when it’s time for someone to step up, they are always prepared. For our players who go both ways, it can be hard. But coach does a great job making sure we stay in shape and keep our conditioning up, so when situations come up we’re ready or prepared for them.”
It’s sort of flown under the radar this year, but Foster’s ability to move to head coach, while still maintaining his defensive coordinator role has been hugely impressive.
“When he transitioned to head coach, a lot was going on,” Benham said. “… We were getting the new field house built and were working out in the old gym with no air conditioning, I think the way he handled all of that was good, and he still held us to a high standard.”
Even still, it’s only natural that Foster isn’t going to be able to spend as much time coaching up his defensive players. And with several new starters on the D-line and at linebacker, the veteran presence of four returning starters in the secondary has been massive.
Although, the group rarely had the chance to show what it could do collectively this season. Dudley missed the first few games of the year, and Coaxum had his own shoulder injury force him to miss time over the middle portion of the season.
“This year, with all the injuries that we’ve had, we’ve had multiple people come in and help us out throughout the game,” Dudley said. “With ’Quail and I, the two seniors, being out for almost half the season, I feel like the rest of the defensive backs stepped up throughout the year.”
It seemed as though things had finally started to work out, as the unit entered the playoffs fully healthy. That lasted less than one game, with Dudley re-aggravating his injury in the first round against Flowery Branch.
The only positive spin on a truly unfortunate situation was that Benham has gained valuable experience, this year and last year, filling in for the AJC preseason all-state pick. Benham caused two turnovers late in that first-round victory, proving the Canes defensive backs truly have each other’s, well, backs.
“They have found a way to make a lot of big plays in big moments for us,” Foster said.
As well as the unit has played, there have still been a few teams able to make them look average on a play here and there. When playing against SEC-caliber athletes like Sandy Creek’s Brian Branch and Rashad Amos, and Troup County’s Kobe Hudson — who are committed to Alabama, South Carolina and Auburn, respectively — there’s going to be forgettable moments, too. Despite giving up 77 combined points in those games, Cartersville’s defense managed to step up, make adjustments and help the offense pull out wins.
They also faced some tough times against the pass in last year’s postseason run, but Foster believes his players have learned from those in-game adversities. That belief will be tested this week, and if Cartersville advances, the Canes secondary probably will be challenged throughout the remainder of the playoffs.
Foster, for one, thinks the group will be able to carry the team down the stretch.
“I trust them,” he said. “I’m going to put them in some tough spots at times, where they’re going to have to hold up. They’ll win their battles, and there will be times when it doesn’t go their way. …
“I’ve just got a tremendous amount of respect and trust for those guys. They know we’re going to lean on them, and I think they really relish that challenge. They look forward to the opportunity to compete against great competition and set the tone for our team. They know I’m going to have to leave them out there on an island some, that’s modern-day football. But again, I have a tremendous amount of trust in those guys and wherever those guys take us, I’m happy to put the game in their hands.”