EAST LAKE — With nine new starters on defense, East Lake coach Bob Hudson knew an extra dose of patience might be necessary for a unit that was going to need time to find a comfort level as it developed.
Not only were the starters new, they were young. (There are four sophomores and one freshman in the lineup.) It was going to have to be that way, especially after the Eagles lost their top returning linebacker, Patrick Millen, to a knee injury in the spring.
East Lake already had a high-powered offense, but the team would survive only if the young faces on defense could produce breakout performances.
The rookie defensive linemen would have to grow up in a hurry while facing more experienced guys across the line of scrimmage. The linebackers would have to think quickly and make plays with force and decisiveness. The defensive backs would have to adapt to a dizzying array of coverages.
The Eagles did all of that — and more.
As the offense has hummed along with proficiency, the defense has morphed, sometimes erratically, into a powerful presence that has helped the Eagles win two playoff games and advance to Friday’s Class 8A region final against Plant.
“We knew that the offense was going to be a little more ahead of the curve at the start of the season,” Hudson said. “It was going to take some time for the defense to develop some chemistry. They’re still learning, and there have been some bumps along the way. But they’ve done a good job of being resilient all year.”
Two of the stalwarts on defense have been a pair of sophomores, defensive back Devin Abraham and middle linebacker Brendan Goettel.
Abraham, son of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer standout Donnie Abraham, came in well-prepared after starring in youth leagues and being groomed for the position by his father, who helps out as an assistant with defensive backs.
“It helps that my dad played in the NFL and is a coach,” said Abraham, who leads the team in interceptions with four and is second on the team in tackles with 81. “I’m able to pick up a lot of things and learn a lot from him.”
Goettel, meanwhile, was a defensive neophyte. Last season, he was a guard on junior varsity before being switched to linebacker this season.
“We saw something with Brendan whenever he was on special teams,” Hudson said. “He had a knack for shedding blockers and making the tackle. We thought because of that he would make a pretty good linebacker.”
Goettel leads the team in tackles with 139 and has registered 10 or more in six straight games. He also has two sacks and an interception.
“I was real nervous at the start of the season, mostly because I was starting for the first time” Goettel said. “But I feel I’ve improved so much since the beginning of the year. So has the rest of the defense.”
Abraham and Goettel have developed a bond by putting in extra work to become leaders.
“Brendan lives down the street from me so he comes over a lot and we watch game film and pick up on things,” Abraham said.
Friday, Abraham and Goettel, as well as the rest of the young starters, have their toughest test yet. They’ll have to find a way to contain a Plant offense that has scored more than 50 points in each of its two playoff games.
The Eagles have allowed more than 20 points in five of the past six games. But they have a knack for slowing an opponent just enough to win.
“These guys just keep playing hard,” Hudson said. “They eventually figure it out and get the hang of it each game and find a way to make the stop when we need it.”