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."

5 Days to Kickoff: Batavia

5 Days to Kickoff: Batavia

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Batavia

Head coach: Dennis Piron

Assistant coaches: Matt Holm, Billy Colamatteo, Sean Anderson, P.J. White, Dan Cadena, Adam Lester, Adam Kolowski, Mike Theriault, Zac Roberts and Erin Finucane

How they fared in 2018: 12-1 (7-0 DuKane Conference). Batavia made the Class 7A state playoff field and defeated Granite City, Moline and Willowbrook. They advanced to the semifinals where they lost to Nazareth Academy.

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 31 vs East St. Louis
Sept. 6 @ Naperville North
Sept. 13 @ Lake Park
Sept. 20 vs Glenbard North
Sept. 27 @ Wheaton South
Oct. 4 @ Geneva
Oct. 11 vs St. Charles East
Oct. 18 @ St. Charles North
Oct. 25 vs Wheaton North

[MORE: 64 Days to Kickoff - Geneva

Biggest storyline: Batavia has won a minimum of 12 games four times since 2011 (two state titles: 2013, 2017). They were within striking distance of another title game appearance last season. Can Batavia reload and make it to DeKalb in November?

Names to watch this season: RB/LB Quinn Urwiler (Sr., North Dakota) and ILB Matt "Mojo" Weerts (Jr.)

Biggest holes to fill: The Bulldogs welcome back nine returning starters (four offense, five defense); they will need to patch a few holes on both the offensive and defensive lines. 

EDGY's Early Take: Head coach Dennis Piron has simply built the Bulldogs into a perennial state title contending team over his eight seasons (85-12 overall record, two state titles). The 2019 Bulldogs welcome back some key names from a season ago including RB/LB Quinn Urwiler, his brother junior RB/DB Trey Urwiler, senior RB Art Taylor, junior ILB Matt Weerts and senior S Sam Barus. The schedule is loaded, like usual. The opener vs. East St. Louis is full of intrigue. The Week 8 game against St. Charles North could be a must-see. If the new faces can step up and help Batavia reload in a few key spots, the Bulldogs will again challenge for the Class 7A state title. 

6 Days to Kickoff: Naperville Central

6 Days to Kickoff: Naperville Central

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Naperville Central

Head coach: Mike Stine

Assistant coaches: Mike Ulreich (DC), Tim Boecker (DB), Marty Balle (LB), Marc Anderson (DB), Eric Novak (DL), Adam Pucylowski (LB), Rick Erickson (DL). Offense: Mike Stine (OC), Pat Watson (OL/Assistant OC), Tony Colletti (OL), Phil Allen (H-Backs), Kofi Hughes (WR), Josh McLeod (WR), Joe Denney (WR), Ryan Clifford (RB) and Chad Bradley (QB)

How they fared in 2018: 7-4 (4-0 Dupage Valley Conference). Naperville Central made the Class 8A state playoff field, defeated Plainfield South and then lost to Marist in the second round.

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 30 @ Hinsdale Central
Sept. 6 vs Lincoln-Way East
Sept. 13 @ Pickerington Central (Ohio)
Sept. 20 vs Metea Valley
Sept. 27 vs Naperville North at NCC
Oct. 4 @ Neuqua Valley
Oct. 11 @ Waubonsie Valley
Oct. 18 vs DeKalb
Oct. 25 vs East St. Louis

Biggest storyline: Can the Redhawks’ transfers mesh well with their new teammates and win big in Class 8A?

Names to watch this season: QB Sam Jackson (Jr., Minnesota) WR Jadon Thompson (Sr., Illinois)

Biggest holes to fill: The Redhawks welcome back just seven returning starters (four offense, three defense); however, some key incoming transfers will certainly help fill those holes. 

EDGY's Early Take: Naperville Central had a short IHSA playoff run last season. Coach Stine’s 2019 Redhawks might be young in spots, but they have the potential to be one of the most explosive offenses in the state. Junior quarterback Sam Jackson (Minnesota) played receiver in 2018 and brings incredible speed/quickness and athletic ability to the offense. Incoming (transfer) wide receivers Thompson and sophomore Reggie Fleurima provide instant big play ability to the Naperville Central offense.

If the new faces on defense can develop and progress this fall, the Redhawks have a chance of being one of the top teams in Chicagoland in 2019.