When Butler senior football player Grant Polofsky went down with a knee injury in the regular-season finale on Oct. 26, Bulldogs coach Brian Hales wasn’t too worried about how the defensive line would react to playing the remainder of the season without one of its best players.
Polofsky had been the line’s leading tackler at the time of his injury and was a key piece of a defense that allows 5.4 points per game. But Hales believed that his team would come together and overcome Polofsky’s injury the way the Bulldogs had overcome a plethora of injuries this season, when they were without players such as quarterback Riley Ferguson and defensive back Malachi Hanes.
It turns out Hales was right.
One week after losing Polofsky, the Bulldogs recorded their fourth shutout of the season, beating West Forsyth 49-0 in the opening round of the Class 4AA playoffs.
Those kinds of performances have been regular occurrences for the Bulldogs, who vow not to let anything, including injuries to key players, distract them from their goal of winning a state title.
“We have been bred to perform at a high level,” said 6-foot-1, 270-pound senior defensive lineman Joseph Moody. “We won the state championship my freshman year, (and) we didn’t allow a point in the championship game my sophomore year. Every year, it’s about the Butler defense.
“It’s the culture here. It doesn’t matter who’s in the game or who’s injured or whatever, that’s the way it is. (A big part of) it is (defensive coordinator Steve) Shaughnessey and what he expects from his defenses.”
This year’s Butler defensive line has been one of the most selfless – and effective – aspects of the team. The players say they understand that while some of their teammates get more attention, the defensive line’s impact on the game is what determines how good the entire defense, and ultimately the team, is.
“It’s pretty simple,” Hales said. “The better the line plays, the better the linebackers and secondary can play because it frees them up. If our line can take care of the run game, then it helps our whole defense be even that much more successful.”
Opponents have had trouble scoring on Butler all season, but one thing that’s certain is teams aren’t going to show up and run roughshod on the Bulldogs, thanks, in large part, to the line.
Senior Darren DuBose said the linemen take extreme pride in their main job: sticking together and making sure they get everyone pumped up and ready to play.
“We have to take pride in it,” said DuBose, a 5-10, 220-pound senior. “We have to go out there with the swagger that we are the best and that nobody is going to beat us.
“(The defensive line) isn’t really a glory position, but it has to be one of the most important. We don’t worry about how people view us or if we are getting the (media) exposure or not. We come together as a unit, and as long as we’re holding up our end of the bargain, the linebackers and secondary can follow suit.”
So far, the Bulldogs have followed that formula, and the results have been staggering. Hales said having such a dominant defense is a luxury many teams aren’t afforded. Through 11 games, the Bulldogs have allowed 59 total points, and no opponent has scored more than 14 points against them.
“We all have a role, and we try to do it to the best of our abilities,” said 6-0, 250-pound sophomore Jalen Cousar. “My role is to try to make it to the quarterback as fast as I can and make all of the tackles that come my way.”
Cousar has succeeded in those goals and leads the team with nine sacks while racking up 57 tackles, but the line, as a whole, has contributed to the Bulldogs’ unrelenting defense.
Moody started the year as an offensive lineman but is spending time on the defensive side of the ball after Polofsky’s injury. DuBose has recorded 51 tackles and four sacks on the year, and 6-1, 220-pound Michael Boykin, another standout lineman, has 29 tackles and five sacks.
“We all have the same goals,” Boykin said. “We try to play on the offense’s side of the ball. If we do that, we will be (successful). I just try to do my job and stay in my lane.”
While each has showed individual success, the Bulldogs’ defensive linemen believe that they have to have a collective effort.
“They play with a real sense of team pride,” Hales said. “This group has been so committed to finishing the year off, and I think it’s all they are worried about.”
Moody said that while having Polofsky out for the rest of the year is unfortunate, the Butler defensive line isn’t designed around the skills of one impact player.
“It doesn’t matter who is out there, we all have to be on the same level,” Moody said. “If a backup comes in and misses a block, he is going to get chewed out even harder because (the reserves) are expected to step up.
“We love looking up at the end of a game and seeing zeroes (for the other team) on the scoreboard. The end result is what matters. Even when it’s the second or third team on the field, we still expect for there to be no touchdowns allowed.”
Hales said this unit has taken that to heart, especially the seniors who have helped develop a tradition of winning. For the younger players, such as Cousar, they are trying to soak up as much as they can so they can carry it on in future seasons.
“I look up to (the seniors) because they are the ones who started the tradition,” Cousar said. “It is something that I have to keep up. I have learned from the guys, and I hope that I can pass it along to guys some time.”
As the Bulldogs enter the second round of the playoffs and prepare to face rival Independence on Nov. 9, even without Polofsky, the defensive line is ready to make yet another statement in a season that seems to be full of them.
Moody and the rest of his mates along the line are ready to see the Butler plan through: hoisting the state championship trophy that eluded them last year.
“We can’t lose focus,” Moody said. “We are on track to where we should be right now. We can’t let the referees, other teams and other outside things get inside where we are right now. No one can distract us from what we are doing.”