Preps Talk

HF defense responding to, thriving on criticism with their play


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."

94 Days to Kickoff: Kaneland

94 Days to Kickoff: Kaneland 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 July 30, we'll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Kaneland

Head coach: Pat Ryan

Assistant coaches: Mike Thorgesen, Ryan Gierke, John Pavlak, Drew Sterkel, Matt Smith, Zack Martinelli, Ryan Noel, Mike Lotz, Anthony Mastropieri, Trevor McKeown and Alec Aurelio

How they fared in 2017: 7-4 (3-1 Northern Illinois Big 12 East Conference). The Knights made the Class 5A state playoff field. They defeated Lindblom, then lost to Sterling in second round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Hinsdale South 

Aug. 31 vs Geneva 

Sept. 7 vs Rich Central 

Sept. 14 @ Sterling 

Sept. 21 vs DeKalb 

Sept. 28 @ Sycamore 

Oct. 5 @ Yorkville 

Oct. 12 vs Morris 

Oct. 19 vs Rochelle

[MORE: 95 Days to Kickoff - Waubonsie Valley]

Biggest storyline: Will the Knights leave their mark in the last season of the Northern Illinois Big 12 East conference?

Names to watch this season: RB Jonathan Alstott and OL/DL Drew Hahn.
Biggest holes to fill: The Knights will need to reload in a few key spots, especially at QB and on the O-line; however, they bring back a nice core of 11 returning starters (five offense, six defense).

EDGY's Early Take: The Knights are still in search of a new conference to call home after the 2018 season. The Northern Illinois Big 12 is in its last season under its current form. This year's Knights have a chance to get back to the state playoff field. The schedule is very tough, but this team will challenge every single week come August. 

95 Days to Kickoff: Waubonsie Valley

95 Days to Kickoff: Waubonsie Valley 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 July 30, we'll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Waubonsie Valley

Head coach: Paul Murphy

Assistant coaches: Ron Griffin, Tom Baumgarnter, Chris Genslinger, Brad Caldwell, Josh Cuttone, Noel Soto, Ryan Voitik, Duane Butts and Ken Anderson

How they fared in 2017: 4-5 (4-4 DuPage Valley Conference). Waubonsie Valley failed to qualify for the IHSA playoff field.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Oak Park-River Forest

Aug. 31 vs Libertyville

Sept 7 @ Neuqua Valley

Sept. 14 @ Edwardsville

Sept. 21 vs Naperville North

Sept. 28 vs Neuqua Valley

Oct. 5 vs Prairie Ridge

Oct. 12 @ Naperville Central

Oct. 19 @ Metea Valley

[MORE: 96 Days to Kickoff: Jacobs]

Biggest storyline: It's all about the schedule. Can the Warriors survive a challenging lineup --which includes playing Neuqua Valley twice-- and make the playoffs?

Names to watch this season: WR Julian Cain and DL Avante Rogers

Biggest holes to fill: The Warriors will have several new faces on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2018. 

EDGY's Early Take: It's not often that veteran head coach Paul Murphy and his Warriors view the playoffs from home. But that's what happened last year. They were the first Waubonsie team since 2006 to do just that. Look for the Warriors to rely on a strong group of receivers to bounce back this fall. They also feature a good group of underclassmen ready to step up. Also, they will need to get used to life in the newly-realigned DuPage Valley Conference. The 2018 schedule includes two games against big district rival Neuqua Valley and a loaded non-conference slate which includes some heavy hitters.