Preps Talk

HF defense responding to, thriving on criticism with their play

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HF defense responding to, thriving on criticism with their play

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.

[MORE: HF balancing expectations, avoiding complacency]

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."

Edgy Tim's Preps Power Rankings: Week 9

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NBC Sports Chicago

Edgy Tim's Preps Power Rankings: Week 9

Here are the latest @NBCSPreps Top 25 Power Rankings.
 
1. Lincoln-Way East 8-0 (1)
Last Week: Beat Thornwood, 56-18
This Week: vs Bolingbrook
EDGY's Take: The Griffins get a nice Week 9 test hosting Bolingbrook. Can the Raiders push the Griffins for four quarters?

2. Batavia 8-0 (2)
Last Week: Beat St. Charles North, 27-24
This Week: @ Wheaton North
EDGY's Take: An epic drive late in the game with no timeouts. The Bulldogs pull out the close-call win over St. Charles North.  

3. Brother Rice 8-0 (3)
Last Week: Beat Leo, 48-0
This Week: @ Montini Catholic
EDGY's Take: What were the preseason that the biggest Chicago Catholic League game of the year would be Brother Rice at Montini?

4. Marist 7-1 (4)
Last Week: Beat Marian Central Catholic, 42-6
This Week: @ Benet Academy
EDGY's Take: The Redhawks will get a nice Week 9 on Friday from Benet at Benedictine University. 

5. Mount Carmel 7-1 (5)
Last Week: Beat St. Laurence, 40-0
This Week: vs Fenwick
EDGY's Take: The Caravan have been playing as well as any contenders ranked here.

6. Homewood-Flossmoor 7-1 (6)
Last Week: Beat Andrew, 35-3
This Week: vs Sandburg
EDGY's Take: Head coach Craig Buzea got his 200th career win last Friday over Andrew.

7. Cary-Grove 8-0 (7)
Last Week: Beat Prairie Ridge, 21-14
This Week: vs Naperville Central
EDGY's Take: The Trojans rallied from being down 14-0 and scored 21 unanswered points to defeat their bitter rivals.

8. Simeon 8-0 (8)
Last Week: Beat Taft, 58-7
This Week: @ Curie
EDGY's Take: The big question coming Saturday night-- Will the Wolverines wind up in 8A or 7A? 

9. Nazareth Academy 7-1 (9)
Last Week: Beat Joliet Catholic, 49-20
This Week: vs Marian Catholic
EDGY's Take: The Roadrunners get a nice bounce-back win last Friday over Joliet Catholic.

10. Maine South 7-1 (10)
Last Week: Beat New Trier, 38-21
This Week: vs Niles West
EDGY's Take: The Hawks get another big Central Suburban South win. 

11. Oswego 8-0 (11)
Last Week: Beat Joliet Central, 49-0
This Week: @ Plainfield South
EDGY's Take: The Panthers will take on a very defensive-minded Plainfield South team on Friday.
 
12. Richards 8-0 (13)
Last Week: Beat Reavis, 51-0
This Week: vs Eisenhower
EDGY's Take: The Bulldogs continue to cruise and are gearing for a high seed in Class 6A.
 
13. Phillips 6-2 (14)
Last Week: Beat Westinghouse, 46-6
This Week: @ Raby
EDGY's Take: The Wildcats will look to finish strong this week against Raby.

14. Willowbrook 8-0 (15)
Last Week: Beat Proviso East, 40-7
This Week: @ Downers Grove South
EDGY's Take: The Warriors will look to send Downers Grove South (4-4) home for the holidays on Friday.

15. Naperville Central 6-2 (16)
Last Week: Beat Waubonsie Valley, 35-14
This Week: @ Cary-Grove
EDGY's Take: The Redhawks have won six straight games and have the makings of a team that could make some postseason noise. 

16. Bolingbrook 7-1 (17)
Last Week: Beat Thornton, 43-7
This Week: @ Lincoln-Way East
EDGY's Take: The Raiders will look to derail the "Big Cobalt Blue Machine" this Friday in Frankfort. 

17. Montini 8-0 (18)
Last Week: Beat Providence Catholic, 27-3
This Week: vs Brother Rice
EDGY's Take: The Broncos will host Brother Rice on Friday in the biggest game of the year in the Chicago Catholic League.

18. Oak Park-River Forest 6-2 (NR)
Last Week: Beat Glenbard West, 10-7
This Week: vs Lyons Township
EDGY's Take: The Huskies have a top-notch defense and found a way to beat Glenbard West at Duchon Field. It was OPRF's first win there since 1998.

19. Warren Township 7-1 (NR)
Last Week: Beat Stevenson, 21-0
This Week: @ Mundelein
EDGY's Take: The Blue Devils defense came to play. An impressive 21-0 shutout over Stevenson 21-0 last Friday.

20. Glenbard West 6-2 (12)
Last Week: Lost to Oak Park-River Forest, 10-7
This Week: @ Proviso West
EDGY's Take: The Hilltoppers defense is still salty as ever. But can the offense find a few more options besides standout RB Tyquan Cox?

21. Hillcrest 8-0 (22)
Last Week: Beat TF North, 50-6
This Week: vs Bremen
EDGY's Take: The Hawks have made it look easy this regular season. They'll go for a 9-0 sweep later this week in an effort to claim a high seed in 5A.

22. Notre Dame 7-1 (23)
Last Week: Beat Carmel, 21-7
This Week: vs Joliet Catholic
EDGY's Take: The Dons now host JCA and will try to knock out the Hilltoppers from the state playoff field.

23. Hinsdale Central 8-0 (24)
Last Week: Beat Lyons Township, 57-0
This Week: vs Hinsdale South
EDGY's Take: The Red Devils will get challenged this Friday against crosstown rival Hinsdale South (The "Doings Cup" game).

24. Rolling Meadows 8-0 (NR)
Last Week: Beat Hersey, 38-35
This Week: @ Buffalo Grove
EDGY's Take: The Mustangs get a huge win over Hersey. Why do I get the feeling we could see an RM-Hersey rematch in the postseason?
 
25. St. Charles North 6-2 (21)
Last Week: Lost to Batavia, 27-24
This Week: vs Wheaton South
EDGY's Take: The North Stars drop a last-second loss to Batavia last Friday; they will look to get back on track this week against another tough opponent in Wheaton South.
 

High School Lites Football Roundup Week 8

High School Lites Football Roundup Week 8

High School Lites is back with an exciting Week 8 full of thrilling matchups. NBC Sports Chicago has the highlights of some of the top matchups from Friday's games.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NBCSPREPS for all of the latest IHSA football scores and highlights.

DRIVEBatavia (episode 8)

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Prospect/Elk Grove Girls Volleyball

VIEWERS' CHOICE GAMES OF THE WEEK: Downers North shuts out rival Downers South

WINTRUST ATHLETE OF THE WEEK: Downers Grove South runner Brenna Cohoon 

Eisenhower's Jade Watson makes a big impression on the football field 

FRIDAY'S TOP 25 SCORES

(1) Lincoln-Way East 56, Thornwood 18

(2) Batavia 27, St. Charles North 24

(3) Brother Rice 48, Leo 0

(4) Marist 42, Marian Central 6

(5) Mount Carmel 40, St. Laurence 0

(6) Homewood-Flossmoor 35, Andrew 3

(7) Cary-Grove 21, (25) Prairie Ridge 14

(9) Nazareth 49, Joliet Catholic 20

(10) Maine South 38, (20) New Trier 21

(11) Oswego 49, Joliet Central 0

(13) Richards 51, Reavis 0

(14) Phillips 46, Westinghouse 6

(15) Willowbrook 40, Proviso East 7

(16) Naperville Central 35, Waubonsie Valley 14

(17) Bolingbrook 43, Thornton 7

(18) Montini 27, Providence 3

Warren 21, (19) Stevenson 0

(22) Hillcrest 50, T.F. North 6

(23) Notre Dame 21, Carmel 7

(24) Hinsdale Central 49, Lyons 6

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Rolling Meadows 38, Hersey 35

Antioch 43, Lakes 24

Byron 21, Genoa-Kingston 14

SATURDAY'S TOP 25 GAMES

(8) Simeon vs. Taft at Lane Stadium

Oak Park-River Forest at (12) Glenbard West