Tyler Newkirk hears it. He reads it, too.
The Homewood-Flossmoor senior crouches into a four-point stance at left defensive end and waits for another opportunity to prove it all wrong.
The red and white face paint streaking across his cheeks and nose add another layer of intimidation that his 6-foot-2, 190-pound chiseled frame already convey the moment he steps on the field every Friday night. On a defense with quieter, lead-by-example seniors, Newkirk is the ultimate exception. There's nothing silent about the anchor of the Vikings' defensive unit, one that in six games has allowed one fewer touchdown (8) than the nine turnovers they've created.
And still, doubters remain. Just wait until they're tested. It's going to catch up with them. A state title won't happen with them playing this way.
Let them keep writing and talking, Newkirk boasts. We'll let our play provide the rebuttal.
"We love it," Newkirk says with a smile. "We hope that keeps on coming because that’s our motivation. We strive to go out there and prove everybody wrong. We want to pretty much shut every hater up."
Such is life for the Homewood-Flossmoor defense, that other unit that makes up the state's unanimously top-ranked team. With the state's most successful offense, one that has averaged better than 12 yards per play, more than 520 yards of offense per game and scored 318 points while resting their starters in the second halves of all but one game, the spotlight rarely shines on Zac Wells' group.
And yet, for the criticism they've received in newspapers, online and on social media, they keep responding with dominant performances.
In Week 2 the Vikings traveled to Lincolnshire to face then-No. 5 Stevenson in a rematch of the 2014 8A state title game. A high-scoring affair seemed inevitable as the two teams traded blows in the first half, with Jack Sorenson and the Patriots reeling off 22 first-half points to tie the game before Bryce Gray and the HF offense scored before halftime to take the lead.
In the second half the Vikings defense clamped down, allowing just a single score and 187 total yards, with three of the Patriots' five second-half drives ending on downs.
That performance has acted as a jumping off point for the defense's success. In the last 18 quarters, beginning with the second half at Stevenson, the Vikings' defense has allowed 19 points. The maturation process seen from senior leaders in Newkirk and linebacker Percy Walters has been apparent. But perhaps more important, the coaching staff is beginning to jell, too.
Zac Wells had known head coach Craig Buzea for years coaching and teaching in Indiana, where he had spent the last 18 seasons. As head coach of his alma mater in Merrillville, Ind., Wells made the decision in 2015 to take a "step back" and join Buzea's staff as the defensive coordinator. The move was a relatively easy one for Wells, who wanted to spend more time with his two daughters and couldn't pass up the teaching opportunity at such a highly-regarded high school.
What wasn't easy was adjusting to a program full of new faces, new skill sets and new tendencies, let alone an 8A program with 90+ kids on the roster.
"I think that has probably been the biggest adjustment," he admits, "(was) figuring out where we can best put our kids to be successful."
Building a defensive staff was going to take time, too. Assistant defensive line coach Josh Forney, a Marian Catholic grad, played defensive tackle at Florida International. Linebackers coach Josh Howe played linebacker at Illinois State. Defensive backs coach Terrance Terry played at South Dakota. Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Matt Ramos was a holdover and helped bridge the gap for Wells in putting together a defense that could match Buzea's well-oiled machine of an offense.
"I think that helps because they understand what collegiate level techniques are and what our kids need to know to move to the next level," Wells said. "We’re trying to teach some concepts that are next-level concepts and help them understand the game more than just what their job is."
[#DriveVikings: State-of-the-art practice facilities 'wonderful addition' for HF]
That meant a slow learning process initially. In that Week 2 game against the Patriots, Wells admits he was still getting to know his personnel and hadn't installed many of the schemes and packages that the Vikings will unveil later in the regular season and playoffs. That process has ramped up because of the senior-laden group that has been willing to accept what Wells has thrown at them.
"He’s pretty much like a Zen master of football," Newkirk said. "He knows everything. We learn a lot from him. He teaches us everything. He takes the time to break every single thing down for us and we just love him. He’s a great coach and he adds to our team tremendously."
The defensive line, anchored by Newkirk, also touts Booker Donaldson, Tyler Obee and Montreal Blade. The unit has allowed three yards per rush and six rushing touchdowns in six games.
Walters, the team's leading tackler, is accompanied in the linebacking corps by Justin Hall, Simeon Nwokenkwo, Tyler Beck and Josh Izenbart.
In the secondary, Wisconsin commit Kendric Pryor, Justin Correll and Trevor Johnson have helped limit opposing offenses to two passing touchdowns and grabbed six of the team's seven interceptions.
The doubters will persist. As the Vikings said at the beginning of the year, it comes with the territory. They'll keep hearing about it and they'll keep reading it, too, as they continue their quest to DeKalb and a potential state championship Thanksgiving weekend.
"We play with a chip on our shoulder every week because everybody thinks, ‘Oh, HF. They’re a powerhouse offense but their defense is really iffy,’" Johnson said. "So this year we’re coming out strong and showing everybody that defense is also a powerhouse and we aren’t soft."