Before They Were Giants: Wake Teammates Bryce Love and Dexter Lawrence’s Pursuit of Perfection

With college football season nearly upon us, the staff here @The_BarnBurner want to highlight interesting stories in our countdown to kickoff.

One was last year’s Heisman runner-up and the early odds-on favorite to win the award this year. The other is projected by many scouts to be the number one pick in next year’s NFL Draft. But before Stanford’s Bryce Love and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence became household names in the world of college football, the two suited up in the fall of 2014 for one last ride as high school teammates in the tiny town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. The explosive senior running back and dominant junior defensive tackle longed to be the first to ever bring a 4AA title to a school whose recent seasons had ended in heartbreaking fashion. This is their story, the story of the 2014 Wake Forest Cougars.cougars

In stark contrast to coaching scandals or the politicizing of national (anthem) controversies, there is a purity to high school football and its collective players — players of all different sizes and talent levels. Under the Friday night lights and before crowds of adoring fans, these gridiron gladiators shoulder the hopes and dreams of high schools, communities, and towns. On the eve of the 2014 season, hometown heroes and Wake Forest High teammates Bryce Love and Dexter Lawrence represented not only the Cougars’ best chance yet to win their first ever state championship in football but also the opportunity to seize the first 4AA crown by any Wake County school since 1987. One year before, Wake Forest saw its fairytale ending implode in a 59-21 beatdown at the hands of Charlotte school Mallard Creek. With the dawn of the 2014 season, expectations remained high thanks to the return of the Cougars’ stars.

A FORMIDABLE DUO

Those in the local community of Wake Forest were no strangers to Bryce Love’s athletic exploits. The senior running back first sprinted onto the North Carolina youth sports scene as an accomplished track athlete. At 14, Love ran a 10.73 100 on a windy track in Hoschton, Georgia. He followed this up with a 21.83 in the 200 meters the very next day. Both of these represented USA Track and Field records at the time (with the 10.73 100 still standing even today). The son of two former track athletes and the brother of a Wake Forest alum who would later play football for East Carolina University, Love was on the radar of Cougar coaches long before he ever first stepped foot on campus. It didn’t take long for Love to make his mark, as he burst onto the North Carolina football scene as a sophomore with a 1,000+ yard and 12 touchdown season. He followed up this impressive debut with an almost 2,000 yard junior season, punctuated by 4-A Player of the Year honors. On the doorstep of his high school football finishing act, Love entered the 2014 season with more than twenty scholarship offers and ranked as the No. 6 all-purpose back (Rivals), the 39th best running back (Scout), and the No. 12 all-purpose back, respectively, in the country. With what appeared to be one of the more lethal rushing attacks in the state, most knew Wake Forest would only go as far as their speedy running back would take them.

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Photo attribution/HighSchoolOT.com

Wake Forest was far from a one man act, though. On the football field, 6-foot-5, 292 pound Dexter Lawrence was hard to miss. The conspicuous defensive tackle with light and agile feet anchored the Cougars defensive line. Raised by a single mother, the Lawrence family moved from Arkansas to North Carolina in 2005. Dexter, his mother, and younger brother eventually settled near Wake Forest. As a seventh grader, Lawrence was a self-described “fat boy,” standing 5’11 and a whopping 270 pounds. A growth spurt soon followed, one that catapulted Lawrence into meaningful playing time as a freshman at Wake Forest High. The conclusion of his first year of high school football ended with an unexpected scholarship offer from Clemson University — a mere prelude of things to come. According to Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas, the “Clemson offer sort of opened his eyes” to what Lawrence could become. As he readied for his junior season, the word on Lawrence was already out in the world of recruiting. Rivals.com had ranked him as one of the ten best college prospects for the class of 2016. College coaches far and wide from Nick Saban and Urban Meyer to Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher all longed for the services of a young man with grown man strength. Lawrence could reportedly bench almost 400 pounds and squat 500 pounds at the age of 17. Pairing one of the best skill position players in the country with arguably the nation’s most talented defensive lineman left the Wake Forest town and team wanting more than just a repeat appearance in the state championship. This was a championship or bust season.

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Photo Attribution/HighSchoolOT.com

REGULAR SEASON DOMINANCE

The Cougars open their season with an efficient, grind-it-out win over Panther Creek. In the 23-6 win, Bryce Love has a workman-like line of 12 carries for 158 yards and two touchdowns. With quiet performances from the school’s two stars, the Cougars win again the following week in a tightly contested, back-and-forth affair with East Wake.  Three blowout victories later and Wake has run its record to a perfect 5-0. On the horizon? A road showdown with conference foe Millbrook. In their most complete game of the season to date, the Cougars get contributions beyond just Love en route to a victory which sees the team rush for 353 yards. The commanding 35-10 victory pushes Wake to a 6-0 record at the season’s halfway point. Through six games, Love tallies almost 700 yards on the ground to go with 11 rushing touchdowns. Lawrence, meanwhile, continues to make plays that don’t always show up in the stat sheet. Although credited with 16 tackles and one sack through six games, Lawrence demands extra attention that frees up teammates to go and make plays.

After 40, 26, 17, and 28 point wins, Wake’s record remains unblemished with ten straight victories to start the season. With one game left, the Cougars have a chance to finish the regular season undefeated and wrap up the #1 seed in the East region of 4AA. The game against Enloe proves to be of no contest. Love has his way on offense and special teams, needing only 4 carries to run for 143 yards and returning the only punt of the night for a 58-yard touchdown. Wake wins going away by the score of 58-12. The Cougars complete a flawless regular season in which they outscored opponents by an average of 30 points per game. The team enters the playoffs on a high note and eyeing a rematch with the defending state champion Mallard Creek Mavericks. Because Wake and Mallard Creek are on opposite sides of the 4AA bracket, a rematch could only take place should both teams find themselves in the state title.

THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION

Wake gets set to open their playoff run with conference foe Leesville Road, a team Wake defeated just three weeks before by a score of 35-18. Off the field adversity hits on Wednesday night before the game when Coach Reggie Lucas gets arrested and charged with driving while impaired. Wake immediately suspends Lucas. The day of the game, no coach no problem. Thanks to Bryce Love, the rematch is never in doubt. The lightning bolt of a running back runs wild to the tune of 235 yards on 16 carries. In total, the Cougars gash their opponent for 381 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging more than 9 yards per carry.  A monster start to the playoffs for Love and his team is a welcome sight for Wake fans and coaches alike, particularly with a second round date with 10-2 Pinecrest on deck. On the Monday after the game, the Wake ends Lucas’ suspension after the coach agrees to a three-day suspension without pay. With the full Cougar ensemble in tow, Friday’s game resembles much of the same from weeks prior: heavy doses of Love for huge chunks of yardage. The end result is another resounding Wake win with a score of 45-21. With another 200+ yard effort from the tailback (214 to be exact), Love nearly eclipses his single-season rushing record of 1,914 set the year before. The victory propels the Cougars into the round of eight and one step closer to the ultimate prize. Awaiting Wake is another familiar foe in Millbrook. With only two losses on the season, one coming at the hands of Wake in Week 6, Millbrook looks and proves to be the Wake Forest boys’ toughest test yet.

Just a few minutes into the Millbrook game, Bryce Love decides to remind everyone that he is damn good at football. A simple swing pass and multiple juke moves ends in an electrifying 51-yard touchdown for an early 7-0 Wake lead. However, his and Wake’s good fortunes quickly change one series later when he goes to the sideline with a bum shoulder. The injury knocks him from the game and forces freshman Devon Lawrence — the little brother of Dexter — into lead tailback duties. Millbrook counters with 14 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a lead into halftime. It’s the first halftime deficit faced by Wake since September, and the comeback will have to be without #22 taking handoffs. Even without their senior leader, the Cougars team comes out determined. Wake reels off 14 unanswered points of their own to reclaim the lead at 21-14. Yet, Millbrook refuses to go quietly in the night. Millbrook senior running back and bull-in-a-China-shop Marcus Marshall ties the game with less than three minutes to play. Facing a third and long on its on 39 yard line and desperate not to punt the ball back to Millbrook, Cougars quarterback Mack Moore finds Brooks Cunningham along the right sideline. The senior-to-senior connection results in Cunningham slipping two would-be tacklers near the first down marker and racing down the sideline before he’s knocked out of bounds on Millbrook’s side of the field. The play results in a nearly 30 yard gain. The Cougars are not done. With a minute or so left on the clock, Moore finds freshman Devon Lawrence for a play-action nine-yard touchdown pass and a 28-21 lead — a lead Wake would not relinquish. The gut-check win without the presence of their best player comes at the hands and feet of determined seniors and a star player’s poised freshman brother. Lawrence finishes the game with 20 carries for 85 yards and the game-winning touchdown catch to boot. The stiff test from Millbrook in the rearview mirror, Wake looks ahead feeling even more as if their destiny ends in glory.

The only thing left between Wake and a shot at the 4AA title is Garner Magnet. Garner rides a 13-game winning streak heading into their matchup with Wake, having blown out their second and third round playoff opponents by scores of 74-14 and 62-12. With Love’s status uncertain for the game, Dexter Lawrence figures prominently into a game plan that looks to slow a prolific Garner rushing attack led by senior running back Nyheim Hines — a rushing attack that averaged more than 250 yards per game on the season. According to recruiting website Rivals.com, Hines is the No. 2 running back (four spots ahead of Love) and the 94th (40 spots ahead of Love) best player in the country. On a cold and blustery December night, the two teams square off. A less than 100% Love starts the game at running back. Whether he will admit it or not, Love goes into the game with something to prove. Hurt shoulder or not, his legs appear just fine after he races 90 yards to pay dirt near the game’s start. He later adds a 50 yard touchdown scoot for good measure. He finishes with 233 yards, but the true player of the game is big man Dexter Lawrence. He completely dominates the Garner offensive line, racking up ten tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. Garner manages only 76 yards on the ground in the 27-13 Wake win.

Says Garner head coach Thurman Leach,

“He is a great, great high school football player. One of the best that I’ve ever seen.”

The Garner tape serves as a reminder to college coaches of Lawrence’s potential as a trench disruptor. On the other side of the bracket, Mallard Creek outlasts Lake Norman. The rematch of last year’s state championship is set. After the victory, Lawrence flatly declares this Wake team better than year’s past. “We are bigger, more experienced, and we don’t have has many injuries. I think I am more excited about playing this year than last. Getting back has been a goal all season.”

The game fans and Wake players had clamored for all year finally arrives. The undefeated Cougars versus the 15-1, defending state champion Mavericks. Early on, the Mavericks impose their will. On just the second play of the game, Mallard Creek quarterback James Smith fakes a handoff, cuts up field, and beats the Cougars defense to the edge. When he’s done running more than 70 yards later, Mallard Creek has an early 7-0 lead. Two failed Wake possessions that both result in turnovers quickly leads to another quick Mallard Creek touchdown. At the end of one quarter, Wake is in an early 12-0 hole after the Mavericks fail to convert either extra points, once because of Lawrence’s big mitt. Wake wisely goes back to its bread and butter — a Mr. Jonathan Bryce Love. He caps off a 14-play, 81-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to five. The score stands up at halftime.

After neither team converts their second-half opening drives into points, quarterback James Smith of Mallard Creek once again finds daylight on a 37-yard touchdown run. With a quarter and a half left, Wake faces the largest deficit of its up-to-then perfect season. In desperate need of a game-changing play, Dexter Lawrence answers the call. As Mallard Creek snaps the ball on a near-midfield punt, he blows past the center and guard. The punter’s kick slams into Lawrence’s outstretched ams. The blocked punt gives the Cougars new life and the ball at the Maverick 36 yard line. Moments later, Moore to Cunningham on a perfectly lofted ball to the corner of the end zone has Wake believing and within five. The game now in the fourth quarter, Lawrence and his defensive teammates plead each other for a stop — just one stop. They know if they give the ball back to Love and the offense, Wake will not be denied.

With methodical precision, Smith marches Mallard Creek down the field in a clock-killing drive. Smith punctuates the back-breaking drive with a one-yard quarterback keeper for the game’s final points. Mallard Creek 25, Wake Forest 14. As the clock hits zero, the scoreboard reflects a nearly identical sight to the year before: North Carolina 4AA State Champions, Mallard Creek Mavericks.

A banged-up Bryce Love finishes with 186 yards on 28 carries for one touchdown. This pushes his season rushing total to 2,304 yards and 33 touchdowns — all career best marks. His time as a Cougar now over, Love’s high school statistics resemble a video game: 5,372 total rushing yards for 71 rushing touchdowns and 83 total TDs. Dexter Lawrence plays the best game of his season, finishing with one tackle, two blocked kicks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. His performance prompts Mallard Creek coach Michael Palmieri to shake his head in disbelief. “He’s a monster. He disrupted everything. He’s probably the best d-lineman we’ve ever seen.” In a season full of constant double-teams and schemes that saw the ball go the other way, Lawrence’s junior year ends with 55 tackles, 25 for loss. With the lights at their brightest, Wake’s two stars show up to play. Painfully, it’s still not enough.

A perfect season now over and the dream of a state titled dashed, the Wake Forest football team walks off the field with tear-stained jerseys but pride intact. Says Cougars linebacker Garrett Brannock, “We didn’t quit, we didn’t hang our heads [even] when we were down.” Coach Reggie Lucas takes pride in his team even in defeat saying, “I think tonight, you guys saw us go toe-to-toe for four quarters.” Yet he cannot help but display the same feelings felt by all those in the Wake community — another special season that ends in heartache, a feeling of wanting just one more chance to finally be the Wake team that wins it all. “I just know there will be a championship won out of Wake County. When that happens, I don’t know, but I hope it’ll be Wake Forest.”

AFTERWORD:

On January 30, 2015, Bryce Love would go on to commit to Stanford over finalists North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and NC State. After sitting behind Heisman candidate and All-American running back Christian McCaffrey his first two seasons, Love wins the Doak Walker and finishes runner-up in the Heisman vote as a Junior on the back of a record-breaking season that sees him rush for 2,118 yards (a school record) and 19 TDs on 263 attempts for 8.05 yards per carry (FBS record for a player with more than 215 carries). In a home game against Arizona State, a game with Wake Forest’s Reggie Lucas and assistant coaches in attendance, Love breaks the school record for most rushing yards in a game with 301. He caps off his junior season a unanimous All-American. Sports Illustrated lists Love as the second best College Football player ahead of the 2018 season.

Dexter Lawrence and the Cougars start the 2015 football season with twelve straight wins. Possibly looking ahead to another rematch with Mallard Creek, the Cougars’ perfect season prematurely ends with a second round upset loss to Page. Lawrence builds off his junior year statistics with a ridiculous 91 total tackles, 21 for loss to go with 13 sacks. Rivals.com and 247Sports.com rank him as the second best player in the nation. On December 12, 2015, he commits to Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers and enrolls early in January of ‘16. He goes on to help Clemson upset the Alabama Crimson Tide in rematch of the 2016 National Championship, earning Freshman All-American and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Sports Illustrated lists Lawrence as the tenth best College Football player ahead of the 2018 season.

On December 17, 2016 and led by standout running back Devon Lawrence, Wake Forest shuts out Page in the 4AA State Championship game to cap off a perfect 16-0 season. The win gives Wake Forest their long sought-after first ever state championship and snaps a 29-year state champion drought for Wake County schools. The Cougars go back-to-back in 2017, at long last vanquishing rival Mallard Creek for the first time in three tries. Devon Lawrence, the little brother of Dexter, commits to the University of North Carolina.

Heading into the 2018 season, Wake has won thirty consecutive games and is ranked the fourth best team in North Carolina.

@FarmerBarn

[Banner Image: ISI Photos and Gwinn Davis]

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