An offseason of uncertainty created by the coronavirus could have resulted in issues on defense for the Grand Junction High School football team.
Instead, that side of the ball was impressive in the Tigers’ 19-13 season-opening loss to Standley Lake last weekend.
“Our defense is tremendous,” first-year Grand Junction head coach Ed Johnson said. “(Defensive Coordinator Darrell) Simonton’s got those guys rolling. They’re all about the attack mode. We’re all in what we call an ambush mentality. It’s an ambush of Tigers. We want to swim to the football and get takeaways. I’m proud of them.”
The Tigers limited the Gators to 155 total yards, including minus-14 on the ground, and, aside from the opening series, kept Standley Lake’s offense out of the end zone.
The core of Grand Junction’s defensive effort against the Gators was their linebackers, led by two seniors in Aiden Johnson, Ed’s son, and Kory Christensen. The two often line up next to each other to wreak havoc.
Their coaches see them both as the leaders of the Grand Junction defense.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the win like we all wanted to, but our defense did well,” Aiden Johnson said. “Our defense is mostly seniors, so we’re pretty happy with the way we played... We’ve been practicing hard. We all have that dog mindset on our defense that we’re going to shut stuff down. Everyone needs to be in sync.”
Christensen pointed out the Tigers’ efforts came after a year of uncertainty and a hectic fall that saw the team’s season suddenly revived after it seemed that football would take place in Season C.
“It was a little different because we haven’t played in almost a year,” Christensen said. “It’s a new feeling for everyone at the moment. It can be hard to get a feel for how to play again... We flew to the ball well, made good plays, recognized the run, got to the quarterback when he was dropping back to pass. It’s little things like noticing the run and getting there that matter.”
The Tigers’ third linebacker, Cole Atkinson, also received praise from Christensen. The junior was also instrumental in shutting down Standley Lake’s offense and setting a physical tone for the six-game season.
“I think he could be seen as a leader also from the intensity that he brings trying to make plays for our defense and change the game,” Christensen said.
Christensen and Aiden Johnson don’t receive much of a break when the defense is on the sideline. They rotate as the Tigers’ running backs and will continue to do so moving forward as Grand Junction looks to get its ground game going after not finding much room itself in the opener.
Their coach believes the duo can handle the tasks on their plate.
“Those two guys, man, we’re going to ride those guys all year,” Ed Johnson said. “They’re going to be getting beat up. They both split reps at tailback. One’s an inside linebacker and one’s an outside linebacker, so those kids are going to be out there a lot this year. They’re seniors. They’re ready for the challenge. We’ve only eight (seniors), so they’ve got to step up to the occasion.”
Grand Junction kicks off Class 4A Western Slope Conference play at Palmer Ridge (1-0) on Friday night. The Bears, winners of three straight 3A titles, scored 42 points against Golden in their first game as a 4A team.