Winder-Barrow coach Ed Dudley knows if the Bulldoggs want to reach the state playoffs this year, they’ll have to go through some tough defenses in GHSA Region 8-AAAAAA to get there.

And they’ll likely see their most talented opposing defense of the year to date Friday, Oct. 18, when they travel to Sugar Hill to face fifth-ranked Lanier at 7:30 p.m.

The Longhorns (6-0, 1-0 region), who are coming off a bye week following a 42-22 win over Habersham Central in their region opener Oct. 4, are stacked with highly-touted players. Chief among them is senior outside linebacker Phillip Webb, the No. 40 overall player in the country for the recruiting class of 2020. Webb, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, has offers from virtually every top-tier college team and has lived up this four-star billing this season, tallying 45 tackles and amassing nine sacks in six games. Senior defensive end Jamar Rucks (six sacks) has garnered a handful of Division I offers, and senior middle linebacker Marcelo Trevino leads the team with 60 tackles.

“They’ve done a really good job of getting after the opposing quarterback and they’ve faced some really talented ones,” Dudley said of the Lanier defense. “They are going to present a big challenge for us, but we’ve known that all along. It’s another big road game for us, one where we’re going to have to play extremely well to have a chance to win.”

The Bulldoggs (2-3, 1-0) will undoubtedly need big nights from their main three offensive stars — senior dual-threat quarterback Jhaydon Sullivan (619 passing yards, 3 touchdowns; 415 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns), junior running back J.C. Green (522 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns) and senior receiver Brett Landis (25 receptions, 382 yards, 1 touchdown). But for that to happen, they’ll need a strong performance from a relatively young offensive line that Dudley has seen steady improvement from. Senior Levi Vertrees and junior Jacob Merrifield are the veteran players that anchor the line, but the team has had to rely on several underclassmen like Jacob Atkinson, Reese Maxwell, Logan Cropper, Devan Berrey, Samuel Herr and Shawn Poole to round out the regular rotation.

“None of them really have just tons of experience, but I’ve liked their effort and how hard they’re playing,” Dudley said of the group. “What Lanier is going to be throwing at us will present a huge test and strain on the line, but even though we’re young, we’ve had some success and feel like it’s starting to come together.”

The same can be said for the Winder-Barrow defense, which Dudley has seen perform much better over the past three games.

While Lanier lost multi-year starting quarterback Zach Calzada to Texas A&M, junior Andrew Blackford has stepped in and performed well, throwing for 767 yards thus far with 11 touchdowns against 5 interceptions. Senior Cole Thornton has been Blackford’s favorite receiving target, catching 17 passes for 363 yards and 7 touchdowns. And senior Taj Barnes has shouldered most of the rushing attack, compiling 719 yards and more than 7 yards a carry and 9 touchdowns.

“Defensively, I feel like we’ve improved a great deal, but this is one of those weeks where we’ve got to take a big step forward and try to slow down a balanced offense,” Dudley said. “The running back has got great speed on the inside and the outside, and their No. 1 receiver compares very favorably to Brett Landis for us. They just present a big threat, and we’re going to need a big night out of our defense.”

The biggest positive for the Bulldoggs, who are also coming off a bye week following a 24-19 win over rival Apalachee on Oct. 4, is they will be healthier than at any point since the start of the season. Dudley expects junior linebacker/fullback Chandler Maxwell to be back after missing the last three full games with an ankle injury, and junior receiver Brent Walker is also likely to return from an ankle injury.

“I thought the bye week came at a really good time for us,” Dudley said. “We felt like we could have gotten Chandler back for Apalachee, but his ankle just wasn’t ready to go and we couldn’t risk doing more damage. I feel like the extra two weeks are making a huge difference in those guys’ recovery.

“The extra week gave us a great chance to heal up and clean up and fix some of the mistakes we’ve made to this point, and we’re excited about going on the road as an underdog and trying to get a big win.”

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