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December 24, 2012

All-Area football team: Isaiah Mack made himself heard with his play (VIDEO)

Leading tackler? Done. In a system benefiting other positions? Sure. While facing double teams? With ease. Then again, Isaiah Mack learned early in his life that some things wouldn’t be easy but were still possible.

At a young age, the boy who has grown up to become Northwest Whitfield’s star defensive lineman had to overcome a speech impediment. He didn’t talk that much in class, and he hated being called on by his teacher.

Now he’s sure not only of his ability to speak, but his skill at stopping opposing offenses.

As the anchor of the Bruins’ defensive line, he did things no other area defensive tackle did this year, even though he probably had the most attention focused on neutralizing the threat he presented. Not many teams succeeded in slowing down — much less stopping — the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound junior this year on his way to a strong campaign in which he finished the regular season as the area’s leading tackler with 136.5 stops. He set program records for tackles for loss in a season (26.5), single-game tackles (20) and single-game tackles for loss (nine).

For his achievements, Mack is The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Football Player of the Year, as chosen by the paper’s sports staff based on input from area coaches.

Mack, a first-time selection to the all-area lineup, admits he likes to speak in front of people now.

The only time he doesn’t want to talk is when it’s time to play football.

“Other than game day, he’s probably the most pleasant kid to be around,” said Northwest coach Josh Robinson, whose Bruins went 6-4 this year and were denied a state playoffs berth by a double-overtime loss to Gilmer in the final week. “I’ve got him in class and he doesn’t talk very much on game days.”

It isn’t like when he was younger, afraid of what he couldn’t say.

From first through third grade, Mack had trouble enunciating certain sounds, specifically one letter in the alphabet.

“I couldn’t say anything with ‘R.’ I could barely say ‘S,’” he said.

No child wants to be laughed at or made fun of, but it’s almost inevitable, and particularly when classmates find something different that sets them apart. That resulted in Mack staying within his shell at school. He hated the teacher calling on him and having to speak in front of his peers.

“I think it could’ve worked to his benefit,” Robinson said. “I’ve been a teacher for a while, and it can be very embarrassing for a kid with that. No one wants to get laughed at.”

In time, Mack eliminated the constraint. He loved talking in class as he began progressing through elementary, middle and high school. He loves talking now, to teammates and friends. He’s good at it, a well-spoken 17-year-old whom you would never guess once viewed a letter’s sound similar to how a college freshman views a final-exam calculus equation.

“Once I hit fourth grade, I loved speaking in front of people,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to get over your fears if you want to get anywhere in life. ... I had my mom and my grandma help me. I think until I was in fifth or sixth grade, my grandma was out there teaching us. It was horrible. I won’t lie, it was worse than school. But without her and my mom pushing me to learn how to talk, I couldn’t be talking now.”

That carried over to football, where Mack excelled despite any added challenges in what he called his “putting it all together” season.

“Next year is my curtain closing,” Mack predicted.

Arguably the most eye-popping statistics are Mack’s tackles and quarterback hurries. His 136.5 tackles came from the strong-side tackle position; 23 times he forced an early throw.

“Half of those (hurries) would be sacks, but they’re fleeing out of the pocket,” Robinson said. “The majority of time he would get the pass hurry and sack. Sometimes the quarterback was running for his life and would throw the ball away near a wide receiver or out of bounds and he wouldn’t get the sack.”

Add in 7.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss, and it all equates to a season-long performance that caught the eye of coaches around Region 7-4A. Mack was named the league’s defensive player of the year, with nine of the 11 votes going his way.

“I’d say looking back at our schedule, he was by far the most dominant defensive line player all year,” said Southeast Whitfield coach Sean Gray, whose team lost 31-7 to the Bruins on Oct. 26 in Tunnel Hill.

“What made him good — well there’s a lot that made him good — but he hustled. I know the night we played them he saved one touchdown for sure on a play that went away from him.

“The ball went away from him on a sweep, and he dove and made a play and tackled our tailback about 10 or 15 yards down the field. It for sure would’ve been a touchdown. You just don’t see that out of an interior defensive player.”

Robinson — who estimated that Mack went downfield at least five times this season to make a touchdown-saving tackle — said it’s tough to imagine that Mack averaged almost 14 tackles per game just from looking at him. He’s not as big as other linemen, and it used to be worse. Mack remembers when he first became interested in football and began playing in a recreation league, he was “a fat, pudgy kid with circle glasses.” His best play was when he blocked for the running back all the way down the field, only to have the referee flag him because blocking down the field isn’t allowed.

When he was a sophomore, he wasn’t putting up the impressive numbers he turned in this year. He played around 200 snaps over the course of the season and tallied near 50 tackles. Robinson knew there was talent, but there also was a lot of stuff to work on.

“We knew he was good,” Robinson said. “We knew he’d be good. I’d think we were lying if we thought he’d be this good.”

The first two games of the season, against Pepperell and Pickens, set the tone. Mack recorded 14 and 14.5 tackles in each contest, respectively, with 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks combined. Only once this season — against Heritage-Catoosa — did he finish with a single-digit number of tackles in a game.

In that win against Southeast, Mack finished with only 11 tackles, including three for a loss — an average night for him.

“He stood out,” Gray said. “It doesn’t matter where the ball is going, he is making the play. ... He gave us fits all night.”

Compare him to fellow defensive tackle Victor Lopez, who was an all-region first-team selection with four sacks and seven pass hurries. Mack had nearly twice as many sacks and three times as many pressures.

“We’re comparing him to what in all the coaches’ opinions is a really good football player,” Robinson said.

For a linebacker, that stat line is great but not outlandish.

For a defensive tackle, especially in the Bruins’ defensive scheme, it’s unheard of.

“Our defense is set up for the linebackers and safeties to make plays,” Robinson said. “None of our linebackers and safeties made that many tackles.”

If that isn’t enough of a challenge, he’s often having to go one on two. Being the top defensive tackle, he gets the center and guard double-teaming him. That started “after about the second game on just about every single play for the rest of the year,” Robinson said.

“He can make plays even when he’s occupying two people. That’s a big thing for our defense. When they have to take two to block one, in a numbers game that frees someone up.”

On many occasions, the “someone” wasn’t needed. Mack often used his surprising speed to make plays anywhere on the field — near the sidelines, in the secondary, anywhere.

“You can measure whether a defensive tackle is fast by whether he can get close to a jet sweep,” Robinson said. “Well, he would tackle the jet sweep. He has one of the fastest 10-yard dashes on our football team.

“It was his ability to make plays in the backfield and down the field. It was like having another linebacker. He made tons of plays going back and catching up to someone.”

Oh, don’t forget about his poor sight.

Mack wears glasses, but not while playing. He doesn’t wear contacts or goggles either. Sometimes he can’t see the coaches’ signals from the sideline.

It’s another hindrance that might be too much for some.

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” Mack said. “If I want to play football, sometimes everything won’t be (perfect).”

So he has to rely on his instincts. He has to read the offensive linemen and react quick enough — with his 4.9 40-yard dash speed — to make the play.

“That’s what makes the reading part that much more amazing,” Robinson said. “He has really overcome that.”

Overcoming all these things is just part of a confidence that has been growing since he defeated his speech troubles.

“It teaches me that if you want something bad enough, the only one who will stop you from getting it is you,” he said. “If I say, ‘I’m going to be the best pass rusher,’ I’m not saying it just so I don’t back it up. If I say it, I’m going to be the best pass rusher. You will honestly have to stop me.”

And if he wants to be the best tight end, he probably wouldn’t be far from reaching that goal from the very start of his position switch. The same goes for almost any position on the field, because Mack thinks he can excel there, too.

“He begs me all the time, ‘Can I play tight end?’” Robinson said. “He always tells me, ‘I can play middle linebacker.’ I tell him, ‘I know you can, but we need you at defensive tackle.’ He will play some tight end for us next year. We have to find out if he can catch.

“It’s mostly a joke, but I promise you if we put him back there (at running back), he’ll give everything he had.”

In the year’s biggest game, with the state playoffs on the line, the Bruins’ hearts were broken by Gilmer in a Region 7-4A play-in game. Mack, however, had his premiere performance. He tallied a season-high 20 tackles in the game, nine for losses, plus three sacks.

“The reason Gilmer had such a hard time blocking him was he reads so well he could beat them on blocks, and then when they were pulling he’d beat them to wherever they pulled,” Robinson said.

“I hope he plays a whole year like he did against Gilmer.”

Luckily for Northwest, and unfortunately for his opponents, Mack will get the chance.

“I can tell you this: I’m already thinking about what we have to do next year with him,” Gray said. “That’s a long time away, but I’m already thinking about that.”

Good luck, because from fourth grade on, nothing has stopped him.

Here’s a look at the rest of The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Football Team, as chosen by the newspaper’s sports staff based on input from area coaches:

Brady Swilling, North Murray, QB: As far as dual-threat quarterbacks go, no one was better.

The senior and third-year starter ran the Mountaineers’ triple-option offense like a charm, with his 1,510 rushing yards on 164 carries — including 12 touchdowns — the area’s best regular-season tally on the ground. It was also almost 400 yards more than the combined total for backfield mates Jacob Mays and Christian Bukle.

Swilling was also highly effective and efficient as a passer, throwing for 1,519 yards and 16 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. And he spread the wealth around, with no Mountaineers receiver gaining more than 500 yards.

No one else in the area had 1,500 yards each throwing and running; according to the staff of Georgia High School Football Daily, it’s likely that no one else in the state did, either

This is his his first all-area appearance after earning honorable mention last season.

Kelvis Rhodes, Dalton, RB: Just a sophomore, Rhodes was the legs that carried Dalton’s running game through most of the year and into the state playoffs.

Rhodes was one of two area players — the other was Swilling — to rush for more than 1,000 yards this season. He averaged more than 6 yards per carry and 127.4 yards per game. The 5-foot-9-inch, 184-pound speedster with good lateral quickness to boot finished his first year as a starter with 1,529 yards and 18 touchdowns on 229 carries. He was the area’s leading scorer, and he also had five receptions for 32 yards.

A first-team selection to this year’s All-Region 7-4A team, this is Rhodes’ first selection to the all-area team.

Austin Lowe, Christian Heritage, FB: Fullbacks are most often thought of as lead blockers for the running back. But the junior was more than that for the Lions.

Lowe rushed for 662 yards on 104 carries, a 6.5 yards-per-carry average, and reached the end zone seven times. He also caught 13 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. In addition, he made a splash on defense as a linebacker. He recorded 87 tackles, recovered three fumbles, grabbed three interceptions and took one of them to the house.

An honorable mention last season, this is his first all-area nod.

Nich Bartley, Christian Heritage, WR: The junior became one of quarterback Trevor Brown’s two favorite targets, and he might be in that same role again next season.

Bartley nabbed 39 catches for 587 yards, both second in the area, narrowly beating out fellow Lions wideout Will Fischer. Of Brown’s 17 touchdowns, nine went to Bartley. He also was the hero in what was arguably Christian Heritage’s best win, a 28-27 comeback victory against Mt. Zion-Carroll. Bartley caught a 27-yard floater with 40 seconds left to give the Lions the lead for good.

This is Bartley’s first appearance on the all-area team.

Brandon Dale, Dalton, WR: When quarterback Cole Calfee dropped back to pass, opposing teams knew they better know where No. 20 was. Not only was Dale the Catamounts’ primary receiving threat, he was also a speedy, shifty talent running the ball and returning kicks on special teams.

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