SPORTS-FBC-INDIANA-TENNESSEE-1-GET

Tennessee defensive back Jaylen McCollough (22) celebrates after a missed field goal by Indiana’s Logan Justus in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2, 2020. The former Hillgrove High School star is part of a overwhelming number of defensive exports coming from Cobb County’s high school programs.

In a county home to a 2019 Heisman finalist, two of the top eight receiving yard leaders among NFL tight end in 2020 and a plethora of running backs who have found success at the next level, many would assume offense must be the focal point.

Cobb County is home to Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (Harrison), Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller (North Cobb) and running back Kenyan Drake (Hillgrove), New York Giants tight end Evan Engram (Hillgrove) and a pair of running backs from Sprayberry — the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jerrick McKinnon and San Francisco 49ers’ Trey Sermon. The county also has more top-level offensive talent on the way, with the likes of Georgia tight end Arik Gilbert and wide receiver Dominick Blaylock.

With that kind of star power, defense may seemed to get pushed to the side, but right now, the defense is pushing back.

“When you’re in a metro area like this, it’s highly populated, you’re going to have more opportunities to see very special kids,” Harrison coach Josh Cassidy said. “Whether they’re academically gifted or they’re gifted in the arts or they’re gifted athletically.”

Entering the fall 2021 season, Cobb County is set to have 172 players in Division I football, and the defense holds three of the top four largest positions representing Cobb players. There are 33 defensive backs, 24 linebackers and 23 defensive linemen.

Wide receiver is the only offensive position in the top four, with 26.

Offense has become flashier and more popular over recent years behind the superstardom of athletic players like quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. McEachern coach Franklin Stephens has noticed the transfer from basketball to football of players who are traditionally taller, have good hands and are used to catching the ball in traffic.

“When you look at how the game has changed in football, the ball has been thrown more,” Stephens said. “Those guys have a bigger role. And as the receiver has developed, so has the defensive back.”

Cassidy has noticed that players who are not built like the typical explosive offensive star can make the switch to defensive back and thrive.

“You were seeing a lot of kids who want to play receiver,” said Cassidy, who was Harrison’s defensive coordinator before taking over for longtime coach Matt Dickmann at the lead reins. “What you’re finding is you have these kids who are a certain height and weight, who may not be able to be a top-tier Division I athlete at that weight at receiver, but they can come over in the secondary and play.”

Over the last 10 years, Cobb has become a hub for recruiting talent, joining Gwinnett County as a must-visit for college coaches from around the country, and it does not matter what position they are looking for.

“When you think Midwest, you think lineman. When you think south Florida, you think speed, and when you think Georgia — man, you think both,” Cassidy said.

As recruitment of different positions in Cobb has grown, so has the success of its talented defenders at the next level. In the NFL, Hillgrove’s Bradley Chubb was a top-five pick of the Denver Broncos, and Sprayberry’s Jabari Zuniga found his way onto the New York Jets’ roster.

Defensive backs like Florida’s Rashad Torrence II (Marietta) and Tennessee’s Jaylen McCollough (Hillgrove) have earned starting spots in the Southeastern Conference, Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy (Hillgrove) leads players in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Bryson Armstrong (Kell), a former FCS All-American at Kennesaw State, will help anchor the linebacking corps at Central Florida of the American Athletic Conference.

The trend looks to continue with highly recruited 2022 players like Walton’s Marcus Allen, Harrison’s Nathan Vail and Hillgrove’s Emory Floyd — all defensive backs — along with Marietta linebacker Daniel Martin and North Cobb’s linebacker Joshua Josephs. They are just a few of the names who might be next in a county that has plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball.

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