Many high school football programs celebrate shutouts with rewards for the defensive players.
Be it chicken wings, pizza, whatever, it’s long been a way for coaches to encourage shutouts and build team unity. Maybe it’s because Nation Ford (2-2) hasn’t produced many shutouts in its football history that it doesn’t have a reward system in place for its defensive players holding opposing teams scoreless.
Or maybe, according to Falcons defensive coordinator Kirkley Russell, whose unit goose-egged Lugoff-Elgin and Greenville the last two weeks, there is no reward system for a different reason.
“We pat them on the back and say that’s the expectation we have here,” he said after Monday’s practice. “Once you’ve done it one time, then that’s the expectation.”
Things have changed at Nation Ford, or at least it seems that way. Known the last four or five years for offensive production, the Falcons beat Lugoff-Elgin 43-0 two weeks ago, then backed up that performance with a 55-0 road shellacking of Greenville. It was the first time the Red Raiders had been shut out in four years.
+6 Nation Ford’s turnover margin the last two weeks, both lopsided shutout wins; the Falcons were negative-2 after the first two games, both losses
“Just a great feeling,” said Nation Ford senior defensive Charlie Newton, one of the key reasons behind the Falcons’ defensive improvement.
“Last year we didn’t really have personnel where it needed to be, but this year everyone is exactly where they need to be,” he added.
Newton may have been talking about himself. He shifted down to defensive end from linebacker and has used his speed with lethal efficacy so far this season. He’s got nine tackles-for-loss total and six sacks in four games, after a junior season in which he managed just two TFLs and one sack. Newton’s also already got more tackles than all of last year, and he’s singlehandedly on his way to topping Nation Ford’s 2014 sack total of 15.
“I’m just coming,” he said. “I’ve just got one job, get the quarterback or the running back. It’s so fun.”
Similar to what several other teams in the area did, Nation Ford reexamined its players and moved a few around in the offseason.
“Last year, we didn’t know what to do with Charlie,” said Russell. “We decided in the spring, we’re gonna put him at defensive end and take advantage of his skill set. There’s nobody that has a higher-tempo motor than him. He plays hard and when you play hard, you make things happen.”
Nation Ford’s defense forced 16 turnovers last season; the Falcons have already created six takeaways in 2015.
There’s also been an infusion of youth, which in some cases has hurt the defense, but in many more instances is paying dividends.
Sophomore Ben Tuipulotu - Hank’s younger brother - has been a contributor at safety with two interceptions. Starting middle linebacker Vinnie Catan is also just a sophomore and leads the team with 41 stops in four games. Nation Ford moved Catan up to varsity last season as a freshman and he notched 17 tackles in his first game against York.
“Vinnie just wants to hit people,” said Russell. “He just made our defense instantly better. He’s an old school linebacker that just likes to run and hit.”
Nation Ford’s defense is no longer a unit at which to snicker, and the reason is simple. Whether it was moving a veteran player to a new spot or blooding a young but promising player, “We’re better at every position,” said Russell.