For the third straight year Wake Forest remains unbeaten entering the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA football playoffs, but something is different about the 2016 roster.
Dexter Lawrence no longer casts an eclipse-like shadow. The 6-5, 340-pound high school All-America is a true freshman starting defensive tackle for one of the most talented college football team’s in the country, Clemson.
However, this story isn’t about a team tired of hearing about what it misses from last year.
It is about players explaining how they are expected to pass on examples of hard work and character from year-to-year to support the program. One of those athletes passing on Lawrence’s leadership this year is 6-5, 270-pound senior defensive lineman Xach Gill.
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“Dexter taught me a lot of stuff on and off the field about being a good student-athlete and always bringing it on the field no matter what,” Gill said. “Physically we were always pushing each other to get better. We’d have our best games in practice when coach (defensive assistant Blake Brooks) had us go against each other. Coach did that to get us hyped up.”
Wake Forest head coach Reggie Lucas said another leadership trait Lawrence left behind is not resting only on physical advantages.
“Even though Dexter was dominant, he pushed those guys as a group,” Lucas said. “Dexter was the ultimate competitor and Xach fed off that. He picked up that going into this year. Dexter is talented, but one of the biggest benefits playing with him is he’s a competitor.”
Two years ago the Cougars advanced to the NCHSAA 4AA state final before falling to Charlotte’s Mallard Creek. Last year they were defeated in the second round by eventual state 4AA runner-up Page High from Greensboro.
Wake Forest opened the 2016 playoffs with a 56-0 win over Panther Creek and is home again on Friday against Wilmington Laney High. A win advances the Cougars at least one round deeper than a year ago.
“We had to hear that once Dexter left we wouldn’t do as well,” Gill said. “But our team isn’t about one person.”
Whether the Cougars lose a player to graduation between seasons or to injury during the season, Gill says the mental approach is the same.
“When one person goes down, another guy has to step up and do his job,” he said.
Gill has carried that program culture as a big guy playing hard and working on techniques.
He has narrowed his recruiting choices to North Carolina, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Ole Miss. North Carolina has been on Gill the longest, with Virginia Tech pushing hard of late and UCLA and Mississippi entering the picture.
“I tell any college coach that asks about Xach that he will be one of the most coachable kids you’ll have on your team,” Lucas said. “Whatever you teach him, he’s going to execute it with technique. He’s very smart about the game. You know what you’re going to get from him playing defense.”
The thing about an eclipse is the object blocks the light then moves on. Lawrence moved on and left illumination shining on Gill and his teammates.
“It was nice to see Xach come back and show everyone he is a team leader,” Lucas said. “It was hard for him to show that with Dexter such a dominant player. Xach had great years playing with Dexter and now we’re seeing what kind of player he is without him. He’s an excellent player on the field and person off it.”