Getting defensive: Tigers’ success on defense fuels turnaround
Grand Junction High School defensive coordinator Brandon Harrison doesn’t hide his aspirations for his side of the football.
“I want to be an absolutely dominant defense on our way to winning a state title,” Harrison said. “I don’t care if we are a small (Class) 5A school or whatever, the bottom line is we have the tools to do it and my goal is to show these kids just how tough they are.”
Harrison is in his second year in charge of a Tigers defense that has allowed 8.6 points per game on the way to a 4-1 record.
Harrison transformed a defense that gave up an average of 26 (2009) and 28 (2008) points per game its first two years in 5A into an immovable force.
The Tigers proved their defensive worth last week by knocking off No. 10 ranked Fountain-Fort Carson 21-20 on the road.
“Coach Harrison has put in so much time with these kids that they started buying into the offseason program,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said. “You could see a different mentality just this summer going against them, and we could tell we’d be pretty good on that side.”
Grand Junction is running a 3-4 base scheme that requires a couple of key players in important positions to be successful.
It begins with the three down linemen who can pressure the quarterback, but also must be solid against the run.
The Tigers are led up front by 6-foot-4, 220-pound defensive end Casey Walker.
Walker led 5A in sacks last season with 12 and has continued his stellar play this year with four sacks through the first five games.
“Coming off of last year where he led 5A in sacks, everyone knows who he is this year,” Owens said. “So with him, Cody Cottrell, James Diamanti, Austin Berk and Evan Duff, I don’t think there hasn’t been a game where we didn’t dominate up front.”
Owens said the defensive line has given opponents trouble in every game this season.
“I’ve had coaches that I respect tell me that the number one thing they notice is how our defensive line is getting off the ball,” Owens said. “That’s something that Coach Harrison has preached and it’s finally triggered with those guys how important that is.”
Behind the three linemen is a set of four linebackers. The inside linebackers are responsible for stuffing the inside running plays as well as dropping into coverage in the middle of the field.
The outside linebackers have multiple responsibilities, but tend to be the team’s best pass rushers off the edge.
Aaron Minnick is playing middle linebacker, along with Ryan Arnold and Danny Wehner. The Tigers’ two outside linebackers are juniors Jerreon Dennis and Gage Casey.
Dennis has been a defensive starter for the Tigers since his freshman year and leads the team with five sacks this season.
Dennis has turned in 15 solo tackles, four tackles for loss, and has forced two fumbles.
“Jerreon Dennis, in my opinion, has proved that he’s one of the top football players in the state,” Owens said. “In the 3-4, the outside linebackers have to be guys you bring pressure with, and against Fountain-Fort Carson he has two highlight-film sacks.
“He’s flown around and you notice him because he’s always around the football.”
The defensive secondary is made up of cornerbacks Tyler Winder and Chandon Rose and safeties Brandon Malloy and Blake Johnson. That group is making it a chore to pass against the Tigers.
In the Tigers’ five games, the opponents are averaging 85 yards per game through the air. Grand Junction has allowed only two touchdown passes so far.
“Our DBs are as good as it gets,” Owens said. “They are able to cover, they know the defense and they are smart.”
Walker said what makes the defense good isn’t its size or speed, but the players’ desire to make plays.
“It’s our mentality,” Walker said. “We aren’t the biggest team, but every guy looks for the ball and tries to get there as fast as they can.
“That was something that’s been installed on the practice field.”
Harrison said he preaches hustle, and knows it’s a way to even the playing field with any team in the state.
“The biggest thing I wanted to install was hustle,” Harrison said. “Hustle takes no talent.
“People play defense certain ways, but the way we are going to play it here is we are going to fly to the ball, and they’ve adapted to that well. This is the hardest working group I’ve ever had.”
Winder said the work ethic isn’t something the Tigers switch off and on. The three-year starting cornerback said it’s been a month-after-month process that’s still not complete.
“It started right after last season when we had people working in the weight room and continued with our summer commitment,” Winder said.
“Everyone was working hard because we knew we had an opportunity to do something special, and we feel like we can compete with any team out there.”