EAST LAKE — For two seasons, East Lake’s defense has been a forgotten unit. While players on the high-powered offense have eaten up all the accolades, the defensive players have hardly had a taste of fame.
They are accustomed to hitting and tackling in the shadow of their more well-known teammates on the other side of the ball.
But in the Eagles’ second-half resurgence, the defense is playing a critical role.
East Lake (11-1) has allowed an average of 14 points in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In last week’s Class 8A region semifinal victory over Vero Beach, the Eagles gave up just seven points — off one big play — and forced five turnovers, including two returned for touchdowns.
“We were young in a lot of spots, and I knew it was going to take some time for these guys to develop,” coach Bob Hudson said. “But I knew these guys could play.”
The Eagles had just one returning starter on the defensive line (Leo Jeter) and in the secondary (Devin Abraham). It usually takes more than a season for a defense to jell after that kind of turnover, but East Lake is coming together sooner than expected.
The leadership was left to Abraham and linebacker Brendan Goettel. Their relentless work ethic, embodied by countless hours of watching film, is a big reason the defense has been able to turn it on late in the season. The two dissect game film meticulously. They will hold a remote in their hands, starting and stopping the video at key moments — click, click — picking apart every nuance, seeking weaknesses to attack.
“We watch as much film as we can together,” Abraham said. “My dad (former Buccaneers standout and current Clearwater coach Donnie Abraham) will help me break it down and he passes that knowledge on to me and I share it with Brendan.”
Abraham has three interceptions and Goettel leads the team with 139 tackles. Goettel is part of veteran linebacking group that includes Treyvon Levels and Darien Woodard.
But the biggest reason for the turnaround is the improved play of the defensive line. Jeter anchors a unit that has been bolstered by the addition of George Campbell, who switched from defensive back to defensive end to provide speed off the edge.
“The defensive line is really coming through,” Goettel said. “They are filling the gaps and allowing the linebackers to make plays. Now we just all need to bring everything we have to move on to the next round.”