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Defense in KS: Improved teams, Impressive units/players

McPherson has had a great year in 4A. (photo: Kendall Shaw)
By: Conor Nicholl for Sports in Kansas w/ Chet Kuplen
Oct 10, 2019

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Conor Nicholl and Chet Kuplen look at some of the most impressive defenses are week five of the 2019 football season.

Wichita Northwest defense has been a game changer so far in 2019

First-year Wichita Northwest defensive coordinator Marc Marinelli has quantified effort for the Grizzlies. Marinelli, the former head coach at Hesston and Goddard-Eisenhower, screen shots a picture after every practice and game play.

The play is graded and charted. If the Grizzlies don’t have a certain number in the photo, it counts as a “loaf” and the defensive players have to run.

The idea came from new Dodge City Community College coach Ricky Coon, previously the defensive line coach at Southeast Missouri State (SEMO). Coon went to Wichita South for high school and collegiately played at Dodge City CC and Bethel.

Last year, SEMO won its first playoff game in school history and led the FCS in takeaways and turnover margin. Coon’s best friend is Northwest head coach Steve Martin. The two played defensive line at Bethel and talk once a week. The effort has become a hallmark for Northwest’s dominant unit.

“We talk about effort and making effort plays,” Martin said. “And so if you are going to give great effort, you are going to have a lot of guys around the football.”

Last year, Northwest finished 12-1 and finished as Class 5A state runner-up to Aquinas. It tied for the best finish in school history. However, Northwest permitted 29.3 points per game and allowed multiple big pass plays in playoff victories versus Bishop Carroll and Maize.

Northwest graduated three of its top-four tacklers with linebacker Josh Carter, Marcus Hicks and Percelle Finch.

Carter, who finished his career with 410 career tackles, is playing for Southwestern College. Hicks is at Oklahoma after 170 tackles, 49 for loss in his career. The second leading tackler, Jamar Martin, tallied 87 stops. He has moved to offense for 2019.

Northwest’s defense is statistically one of the most improved units in Kansas this season. Most notably, Northwest is one of several squads that has had excellent secondary play.

The 5-0 Grizzlies have ranked second in Class 5A all season and allowed just 39 points, second-best in 5A. Northwest permitted 114 points through the first five games of ’18. Maize paces 5A with 33 points permitted. De Soto stands third with 40 points allowed. Every other team has allowed at least 54.

“We are more complete because of what our defense has done,” Martin said.

The defense returned just four starters from last year. In addition to the improved effort, Northwest has performed well with pre-snap alignment and limited big plays.

Marinelli and Martin are longtime friends and always said one could be an assistant coach for the other. Marinelli resigned at Eisenhower last fall. He and Martin talked through Northwest’s playoff run, and then again at the coaches’ clinic.

Marinelli told Martin he wasn’t sure of his plans but didn’t want to be a head coach. Martin said he had a spot at NW, though without a teaching position. Marinelli still teaches P.E. in Goddard and drives 10 miles each day to Northwest. Martin labeled Marinelli “a great fit.”

“Coach Marinelli and the staff on the defensive side have done just a great job of our guys giving effort,” Martin said. “The scheme is pretty much the same with some few wrinkles here and there, but the big thing that coach Marinelli has done has gotten our guys to play lights out with great effort, and it’s really paying dividends for us.”

Even without Carter, Hicks and running back Breece Hall (Iowa State signee), Martin said this year’s team is the strongest and fastest squad he has had in his eight-year tenure. Northwest, long known for its high-tempo offense, is one of many teams that uses Rack Performance in the weight room. All year, Northwest conditions for 30 seconds and then breaks for 15 seconds.

“All around, this team has attacked the weight room, because they didn’t want to be that team that didn’t produce like everybody else,” Martin said.

Sophomore Nathan Carter (6-2, 230) starts at nose guard. Carter, Josh’s brother, became the first freshman to be on varsity under Martin in ’18. Northwest needed a lineman shortly before the ’18 season after a player quit the team. Carter, impressive in the weight room, started at left tackle and moved to defense this year. Junior Nathan Hale is at defensive end.

Michael Anthony has emerged at outside linebacker with 22 tackles. He had five all of last season. Anthony has a 440-pound squat and a 285-pound hang clean with 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Anthony was between a safety and a linebacker, and Marinelli watched some JV film. He believed Anthony, with his motor, would be a great fit at outside linebacker.

“Has done a great job of being that guy that can sometimes walk back and be a safety, but he’s also that outside backer that can run and cover,” Martin said. “He brings it. He gives us a versatile weapon on the defensive side of the ball for sure.”

Junior outside linebacker Jacob Younkman had a big sophomore season when he started over a senior. Known for his consistency, the 5-11, 195-pound Younkman has gained 10 pounds, and has 32 tackles with 10 for loss. He recorded 53 tackles, 21.5 for loss as a sophomore. Darius Cooper and Jack Wiens, a senior transfer from Andover Central, start at inside linebacker. Wiens paces with 42 tackles after 135 as a junior. Martin labeled Wiens a “human missile.”

“If I am a linebacker, I want to play in that system, because I get a key and I get to run,” Martin said. “And coach Marinelli’s scheme just lets those guys play, and that’s what Jack’s doing. Jack’s not thinking. He is just reacting and running, and it’s really fun to watch him make plays.”

Senior safety Malcolm Bell had five interceptions as a junior and has recorded 20 tackles with a pair of picks this year. Junior safety Todric McGee (33 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, two INTs, two forced fumbles, three passes defended) has made a huge improvement after 17 tackles and an INT in ’18.

Same for junior Wetu Kalomo with five interceptions and six passes defended. Overall, Northwest has forced 19 turnovers.

After five games last year, Northwest collectively had picked off five passes and had 13 turnovers created.

“The big thing is that our speed over there on the defensive side of the ball has improved with Michael Anthony as an outside linebacker, and Todric McGee at the safety position, and then Wetu Kalomo,” Martin said.

Two weeks ago, Northwest defeated Wichita West, 63-14, and earned a 45-0 win versus Kapaun last week. West held the ball for 25 minutes, 29 seconds – nearly three minutes longer than the Grizzlies. Kapaun had a bigger disparity with 33:06 in time of possession compared to 14:54 for Northwest.

“Those guys are playing with effort,” Martin said. “That’s a big thing. You pop on our tape, there’s so much effort out there, and those guys are just playing really unselfish right now.”

Opponents milk the game clock down to one second and then snap the ball, but Northwest has limited big plays with its correct alignment. Martin gave credit to cornerbacks coach Ike Onwugbufor, too.

“It all starts about presnap alignment, and those guys’ eyes are just so much better,” Martin said. “They are getting their eyes on the right spots, and that’s the big thing. … If your eyes aren’t right, you are not going to be lined up right.”

Class 3A: Halstead with big defensive improvement; Hiebert breaks 80-year-old school mark

Halstead returned seven defensive starters from a 5-4 squad, including two in the secondary: senior free safety Scott Grider and junior cornerback Lakin Farmer. They enjoyed strong seasons, but Halstead has seen a big improvement from junior cornerbacks Carter Hiebert and Cameron Kohr. Coach Jason Grider called Kohr “the really unexpected one.”

Hiebert has intercepted three passes with 140 return yards, including a pair of pick-sixes. In a 36-14 Week 2 victory versus Pratt, Hiebert broke a school mark that had stood since 1939 with a 104-yard interception return.

Farmer has picked off five passes, and Kohr has one interception. The trio combined for two INTs in ’18.

Halstead has opened 5-0 and permitted just 66 total points, including a big 46-6 home win versus rival Hesston last week. Farmer made a key end zone interception late versus Hesston.

As well, Kohr baited the Hesston quarterback into a throw and delivered a nice play for an INT. Coach said Scott and Farmer’s experience has allowed Halstead to get lined up correctly.

In 2018, Halstead opened 3-2 and allowed 93 points. The Dragons have picked off 10 passes and forced 12 turnovers. In 2018, Halstead recorded just seven interceptions and forced just 15 turnovers all year.

“They can man up and take receivers away and allow our defense to fly to the ball,” coach Grider said. “I think our corners have really, really helped our defense. Both really athletic kids, both very, very smart kids, and kids that have been in our program a long time.”

Junior linebacker Doug Grider leads with 65 tackles and 8.5 for loss. Scott, his brother, is a three-year starter and ranks second with 40 stops. Doug - a full-time starter on the offensive line since his freshman year and on defense since he was a sophomore - and Scott are coach Grider’s sons.

“Every time I pull in my driveway after practice, I just sit and think, ‘That’s just one less day I’ve got with them,’” coach Grider said. “And I am just very thankful. They are inseparable, and they are best friends. You don’t see one without the other, and that’s kind of the joke around school. When you see them, they are usually always together.”

The Dragons stand No. 8 in 3A scoring defense a season after they finished No. 21. Scott City (10), Jefferson County West (13) and Andale (20) lead the classification for fewest points allowed.

Halstead senior inside linebacker Kaden Kraus returns after he delivered 73 tackles as a freshman and 135 as a sophomore. He missed nearly all of ’18 and finished with just 25 stops. Kraus has 30 thus far and has started at fullback. Offensively, Scott leads with 94 rushes for 621 yards and 13 scores.

“Getting him back healthy after missing most of last year has just been a huge, huge improvement on both sides of the ball,” coach Grider said.

Senior outside linebacker Aric Propst had 154 tackles and a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns in the last two seasons. Propst was banged up in the jamboree and missed a game. He was the team’s defensive player of the week two weeks ago and has 14 total stops. Grider said Propst “does a lot of our dirty work.”

“We feel like we can do so much with him,” Grider said. “He’s an outside linebacker for us that can get back to the passer, he’s a great run stopper, and then we also put him back in coverage. He can do it all.”

Senior 295-pound nose guard Ethan McDonald has started all four years and is possibly the team’s most improved player. His six tackles for loss are double his total in his first three seasons. Junior Cole Herman starts on both lines after he was out all last year.

“Has just made huge strides in the weight room,” Grider said of McDonald. “…Demands the double team, and a lot of time will split that double team and make plays. Just done an outstanding job for us. And all the way across the front, I think our defensive line has set the tone.”

Class 5A: Maize South staying consistent; has three defensive touchdowns

Maize South has long run a 4-3 under Brent Pfeifer, the only coach in the Mavericks’ 10-year history. Maize South has historically enjoyed strong defenses, including a top-10 scoring unit in its respective classification the last three falls.

This year, Maize South is 5-0 after a 2-3 start in ’18. The Mavericks have permitted 82 points, ninth-best in 5A. Maize South’s coaching staff starts to watch players when they are freshmen and sophomores and figure out their strengths.

“Sometimes what their strengths are is going to make us adjust just a little bit in the back,” Pfeifer said. “One year we might have a corner that’s really good about getting hands on and pressing, and that’s what they like to do, and that’s what they are comfortable with doing.

“And so, we match them up with  a safety on that side that’s really good about reading the ball off the hand and getting on top if they need to, and helping if they have to,” he added. “So it’s kind of a combination of what we want to accomplish in the back with our coverages each week. But also trying to find out what your kids are good at.”

The coaching has helped Maize South continue to play well despite massive injuries. The Mavericks have had 13 defensive injuries and lost three starters. Maize South has eight interceptions, including three pick-sixes, and recovered four fumbles. Senior Trevion Mitchell is a returning first team all-state player with multiple Division II offers. He has 33 tackles, along with a pick-six and a scoop-and-score for a touchdown.

Last year, Maize South picked off eight passes, forced 22 turnovers and scored one defensive touchdown on an interception return from Mitchell.

In ’18, Pfeifer estimated Mitchell was rarely thrown at – “two or three balls a night maybe.” The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Mitchell has a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash and can squat 335. Pfeifer said Mitchell has improved physically and his ball tracking skills.

“This year, we are moving him around a little bit,” Pfeifer said. “Putting him in different spots on the field. I think that’s one thing Trevion has really worked on this offseason is improving his strength and speed a little bit and making himself a little more versatile as a defensive back.”

Cornerback Tysaac Noland is back as a second-year starter in the secondary. In Week 2, Dominic Castelli, a returning starter, broke his leg. Sophomore safety Ladislao Jaimes III has stepped in with a great season (three pass breakups, two forced fumbles).

“Just super impressed with how fast that kid is picking it up,” Pfeifer said.

Ryan Hays, a returning starter at cornerback, broke his hand. Drew Wolf stepped and had a big game with two interceptions versus Andover Central’s prolific passing attack.

“Playing really, really well over there,” Pfeifer said. “So we’ve had two kids filling in the back four that have stepped up and filling some shoes and doing fantastic for us.”

Coleman Koehn has 32 stops, Brandon Bowles with 37, Trevion Mitchell with 27, while Harper Kennedy (21), Zach Saville (18) and Calvin Benefiel (20) have also had big years. 

Other top defensive teams/defensive players

Class 6A

Last season, Derby enjoyed the best Class 6A scoring defense since at least 2006, according to Prep Power Index. The Panthers, on an 18-game winning streak, have again the No. 1 defense by a large margin with just 33 points allowed. Gardner-Edgerton ranks second with 69 points permitted, followed by Shawnee Mission South at 76, and Dodge City with 77. DC has also taken ideas from coach Coon, including the 3-front concept.

The Red Demons are a surprising 5-0 after they started 2-3 and permitted 153 points in the first five weeks. DC has permitted just 309 yards per game, according to WAC statistician/Hays High broadcaster Dustin Armbruster. John Johnson paces Dodge City with 49 tackles. Alden Knedler leads the WAC with three interceptions and has 46 stops.

AJ Patillo has been a breakout player for Olathe North this season with 65 stops after five weeks. 

Class 5A

In addition to Wichita Northwest, Maize and Maize South’s units, Andover has allowed just 54 total points in a 2-3 start. St. James Academy is 3-2 after a 2-8 season last year. Senior Cade Lautt leads with 57 tackles, 27 more than any other player. St. James also only counting solo tackles this year otherwise Lautt's numbers may be off the charts, he afterall was the Non-Senior Co-DPOY last season at Sports in Kansas and will wrestle at UNC next year. The unit shutdown Miege in week four on rushing yardage. Beau Grable has also been great with four interceptions. 

Trey Krause keys 2-3 Olathe West with 82 tackles, second-most among state 11-man players, according to MaxPreps. Both Lautt and Krause were first team all-state picks in ’18.

One of 5A’s biggest defensive improvements belongs to Kansas City Washington (3-2). Camron Smith is an alum in his first season as head coach. The Wildcats have allowed 120 points. Last year, Washington opened 2-3 and permitted 128 points.

Washington senior Tywan Muturi leads the state with eight interceptions with 325 return yards and three pick-sixes.

Riley Wegner leads Emporia defensive unit this year with 7 sacks on the year and is a breaout player in 5A. Beau Baumgardner also has 47 stops on the year. 

Ryan George has been all over the place for Eisenhower (4-1) with 7.5 sacks this season. Dominic Lacastro has also added 7 sacks. Chance Omli is one of the best defensive backs in 5A with five interceptions for Ike in 2019. 

Dalton Miller, who now doubles as the Great Bend QB, has 374 tackles in his career as a defensive back including 52 this season. 

Kolten Jegen, the younger brother of Gatorade POY Christian Jegen, has enjoyed a breakout junior year with 40 stops for Mill Valley. While MV record doesn't look great, don't look into that, they are legit and will be a factor in 5A East. 

Wetu Kalomo has highlighted the Wichita Northwest defense with five interceptions this season.

Class 4A

Mason Thrash is one of the best linebackers in the state for 4A McPherson and also one of the most underrated. He leads the McPherson team with 39 solo tackles as Brycen Labertew has chipped in 32 with and interception and two fumble recoveries. The defense also features one of the best defensive ends/tight ends in Kansas in Kansas State commit Cody Stufflebean. 

For the second straight year, K.C. Piper’s Branden Martin leads the state in tackles. He has 96 stops. Andover Central’s Trey Degarmo has 69 tackles.

Tonganoxie senior Connor Searcy missed last season with a knee injury. He has come back to lead the Chieftains with 49 tackles – 20 more than any teammate – along with six tackles for loss. Senior Cole Sample is second with 29 tackles and a team-high seven TFLs. Junior Dallas Bond has five sacks. The Chieftains have permitted 76 points. Last year, Tonganoxie opened 3-2 and allowed 108 points.

Paola paces 4A with 31 points allowed, while McPherson is second at 50, Pittsburg is third at 57, and Piper fourth with 63. Buhler (70), Tonganoxie, Chanute (76) and Winfield (79) round out the leaders. Winfield is 4-1 after 2-3 start in ’18.

Class 3A

Scott City leads the class with 10 points permitted. Jefferson West has 13 points allowed, while Andale (20), Topeka Hayden (34) and Prairie View (36) follow. Last week, SC held Russell to minus-9 rushing yards. Scott City has not allowed an offensive touchdown through the first five games, a first since ’84, according to Western Kansas News.

Concordia senior Hunter Schroeder has intercepted two passes and returned both for scores. He has 136 interception return yards. Chas Carlgren has had a big year as well with 60 tackles in five weeks. Don't look too much into Concordias record as they are certainly a capable team. 

Gabe Garber is one of the most well-known names for small school sports in the state because he does a little of everything including two titles in football and two in baseball, earning all-state honors the last two years in those sports. He also has 48 stops this season to lead the Sabetha defense. He is also the QB of the offense for a team that has won back-to-back in 3A. 

Jefferson West has one of the most solid defensive units in the state and held high powered Hayden to just 13 points last week in the loss to the Wildcats. The Saili brother trio forms a wrecking crew on their defense. Jefferson West has opened some eyes with their solid 4-1 start. 

Storm Slupianek leads the Marysville defense with 45 tackles this season. His teammate Garron Champoux and him form one of the best linebacker duos in the state as Champoux has been battling back from injury much of the first few weeks. 

Hunter Boone of Prairie View has 41 stops for the Buffalos in their very impressive 5-0 start. He also doubles as a solid runing back on offense for head coach Kyle Littrell. 

Nolan Streit has had a big year for Clearwater with 71 tackles on the year (57 solo, 14 assists) as their team is much improved. 

Class 2A

Silver Lake is first in the classification with 25 points allowed, followed by Belle Plaine (28), Maur Hill (42), Lakin and Southeast Cherokee at 48, and Cimarron at 59. Lakin and Cimarron are both undefeated and play each other Friday in Cimarron.

Belle Plaine is one of the state’s biggest surprises with a 5-0 start. Tim Bible recorded a pick-six last week in a win against Neodesha. Maur Hill senior Abe Siebenmorgen, a returning first team all-state pick, paces the Ravens with 35 tackles, six for loss.

Judson Wiltfong, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 225, has had a big year with 46 tackles and six sacks to lead the much improved Norton defensive unit. 

Wyatt Pedigo is one of the states best two way players earning 2A POY from Sports in Kansas last year and Non-Senior Co-POY on defense last season for Hoisington. He has 48 stops and an impressive five interceptions this year and is also among the states leading rushers. He has committed to Divison I North Dakota. 

Jaxson Gebhardt, also a breakout QB as a junior, having a big year defensively with six interceptions for Southeast of Saline. 

Class 1A

Ell-Saline has permitted 31 points, followed by Sedgwick at 32 (Sedgwick scored those points on Ell-Saline), Olpe with 35, Smith Center at 39 and Jefferson County North at 53. Sedgwick’s defensive improvement is one of the key midseason storylines in 1A. The Cardinals are easily on pace for their best scoring defense since at least ’04. Senior middle linebacker Gannon Resnik has helped key the defense. Sedgwick had allowed 61 points at this time last year.

Konnor Pfeifer has 69 tackles for Ellis this season, averaging 13.8 per contest. 

Joel Montgomery has dominated on the line for Smith Center this season with 43 stops in limited playing action of big wins. The Redmen are the favorite to three-peat in 1A. 

Eight-Man, Division I

South Central has allowed just 20 points, while St. Francis is at 30. Canton-Galva stands at 31, while Clifton-Clyde is at 36, and Ness City 37. No. 1 ranked C-G owns a quality win versus 4-1 Little River and has seen a massive defensive upgrade. The Eagles had allowed 126 through five weeks in ’18.

SC has consistently churned out top-10 defenses with coach Billy Nichols. Sophomore Owen Herd leads with 32 tackles, and junior Landon Uhl has 8.5 tackles for loss. Two-time all-state pick Gage Girk has four more interceptions and is up to 22 in his career.

Blake Goodman of A&A has racked up 96 tackles this season to rank first among 8-man. 

Eight-Man, Division II

Hanover, on its 43-game winning streak, again leads the class with just 44 points allowed after returning just one starter. St. Paul has allowed 46 points, while Osborne/Thunder Ridge stand at 54. Wheatland-Grinnell has allowed just 56. W-G is 3-1 on the field and has a forfeit victory. Frankfort has allowed 58.

W-G is one of eight-man’s biggest surprises. Freshman Jett Vincent leads Kansas eight-man players with eight INTs.

Riggs Reneberg has nine sacks this season for Thunder Ridge (5-0). Teammate Reece Struckhoff who has done anything he has wanted to on offense also with 85 tackles defensively and is one of the top two-way players in 8-man football. 

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