When head coach Lance Sawyer talks about intensity in Hillsboro High School football practices, here’s what he means:
The team participated in a drill Sept. 19 during which two-player teams flipped tires back and forth, jerking the heavy pieces of farm-implement rubber up to their chests and then pushing them back to their horizontal rest position. The largest tire, deceivingly skinny as defensive coordinator Scott O’Hare described it, weighs almost 400 pounds.
Most of the players could complete a flip in less than 30 seconds.
“It’s crazy how much faster they are now than when they started,” O’Hare said. “We firmly believe this helps us in the fourth quarter.”
O’Hare wanted to have the big boys handle the big tires, but to start the drill quarterbacks Tyler Proffitt and Lucas Sinclair took turns with one of the heavier workout tools. Everyone was expected to put in the work.
The drill is not necessarily designed to increase strength, although it’s a welcome side effect; it is aimed at testing the team’s mettle. The players are meant to flip the last tire as quickly as the first. It’s about determination.
When looking for what is different about the HHS football team in 2012 from the team with many of the same players from 2011, it is this collective determination and intensity that has driven them to dominate their first three opponents.
“There’s definitely an urge to win,” team captain Nathan Unruh said. “We can be as good as we want to be.”
The intensity, channeled into focused aggression, has been most obvious on defense. O’Hare said the Trojans are not doing anything that different this season. They are still running a 4-3 and an occasional 4-4 look to stop the run. Under Dennis Boldt last season the Trojans blitzed often, usually with one extra defender at a time. Hillsboro is blitzing more this season but not excessively.
“We have a fast, athletic bunch,” O’Hare said. “We have people moving around.”
What has changed for Hillsboro is intent. Last year, the Trojans were content to stop teams. This year they want negative yards. This year they want to take away a team’s go-to plays so effectively that they force an offense to run plays they’re not comfortable with. When opponents are no longer comfortable, the Trojans can force them into mistakes.
Against Nickerson on Sept. 14, Hillsboro shut down the option. With blitzes up the middle from linebackers Tyrell Thiessen and Tanner Jones, the Panthers’ quarterback routinely had at least two rushers in his grill as he tried to complete a pressured pitch to his running back. The runner received the ball before he wanted it, and either Proffitt or Evan Ollenburger were ready wrap up the ball carrier with a sound tackle. Nickerson ran the option multiple times; it usually registered as no gain.
Hillsboro shut down the Nickerson running game, forcing them to go to the air. Here safety Shaq Thiessen was able to be a ball hawk and jump routes for interceptions.
All 11 players had to do their specific job to make the defense work. Linemen Cody Delk, Unruh, Dylan Jirak, and Josh Wiebe had to quickly get off blocks at the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Tyrell Thiessen, Jones, and Sinclair had to fill running gaps and wrap up ball carriers entering their lanes. Corners Proffitt and Ollenburger had to cover the perimeter on runs and play tight man coverage on passes. Safeties Shaq Thiessen, Jesse Brown, and Justus Hilliard had to support against the run and the pass.
The message of assignment defense was echoed by O’Hare, Unruh, and Wiebe.
“As soon as people start worrying about stats the whole team concept breaks down,” O’Hare said.
Sawyer and O’Hare have pointed out Delk as a defender who has done his job exceptionally well without always showing up on the stat sheet. He has a been a disruptive force on run plays, practically living in the opponents’ backfield against Lyons, Sterling, and Nickerson. He did not register many tackles against Nickerson but he contained many outside runs and forced players into the waiting arms of teammates in the middle of the field.
O’Hare said it is Delk’s understanding of the position based on three years of experience that has allowed him to make plays. His intelligence makes up for a lack of size, being Hillsboro’s smallest defensive lineman.
Team stats are the motivation for Hillsboro. Every tackle for a loss, sack, interception, and fumble recovery give each player more confidence that the defense works if they keep doing their specific job.
The Trojans have confidence but not arrogance. They are good, but O’Hare said they have a chance to be great. Although Hillsboro has only allowed two touchdowns in the last two games, O’Hare is still looking for the first shutout of the season.
Wiebe said the expectation for the team has changed. Now the Trojans are supposed to be good. They’re not going to sneak up on anybody the rest of the season … which makes it more important to keeping flipping those tires with the same zeal.