Top 10 defensive linemen to watch in Rockford-area high school football

Hononegah's defensive linemen Alex Escamilla, left, and Aidan Peters pose for a portrait during football practice Aug. 12, 2021. Both were first-team all-NIC-10 as juniors.
Matt Trowbridge Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star

Friday night football games are closing in fast, and the Rockford Register Star's preseason coverage continues by moving into the trenches.

Leading up to the Aug. 27 season-opening kickoff, we will look at the best teams from the NIC-10, Big Northern, NUIC and 8-man football and also take a position-by-position look at the top players to watch in the entire area.

Today, we continue our series by spotlighting the defensive linemen.

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In alphabetical order, here are 10 to watch from the Rockford area heading into the fall football season:

Large schools

Justino Benitez, Belvidere North

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior wasn’t supposed to be big enough to play defensive line. But North was so rich at linebacker they moved Benitez to the line, where he was honorable-mention all-conference as a junior, making 26 tackles in only four games.

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“We were just trying to get him on the field,” North coach Jeff Beck said. “He’s quick and aggressive for us. He is a high-motor kid. We are looking at him and Tavione Wilson to anchor our defensive line. They are both strong, explosive kids but routinely give up 50 to 60 pounds to the kids they are going against on the offensive line. Their explosiveness helps them out.”

Tyress Cunningham-Smart, East

The 6-foot, 230-pound senior was first-team all-conference last season.

“(Tyrus) Cunningham-Smart is always in school on his own, working on things high school guys just don’t do,” East coach Gary Griffin said. “He will be very, very impressive. He’s quick as heck, very strong, has speed off the edge and he can cover guys out of the backfield. He will be a standup linebacker in college; that’s how athletic he is. He can run as fast as most running backs in the league.”

Alex Escamilla, Hononegah

Hononegah's defensive lineman Alex Escamilla poses for a portrait during football practice at Hononegah High School Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Rockton.

The 6-foot, 215-pound senior was first-team all-conference as an edge rusher his junior season. His three sacks in five games put him in a tie for third place in the NIC-10.

“We are really excited to see what he can do off the edge,” Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman said. “He’s got the combination of strength and the ability to track the ball.”

Keshawn Harrington-McKinney, Harlem

The 6-foot-2, 290-pound younger brother of former TCU left tackle Anthony McKinney was first-team all-NIC-10 as a sophomore, with 28 tackles and three sacks.

“He is a pure animal,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said of his nose tackle. “He is bench pressing over 400 pounds, dead lifting over 600, squatting over 600 and power cleaning over 340. He re-established the line last year and he was only a sophomore doing it.”

Aiden Peters, Hononegah

Hononegah's defensive lineman Aidan Peters poses for a portrait during football practice at Hononegah High School Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Rockton.

The 6-foot, 235-pounder is a three-year starter at nose tackle. He and teammate Alex Escamilla at defensive end were both first-team all-conference as juniors.

“With that combination, we feel excited about our defensive line being really solid,” Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman said. “He’s just a hard-nosed kid with great technique who gets better every day. We can’t block him in practice.”

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Small schools

Jake Anderson, Durand/Pecatonica

The Illinois State commit had 23 tackles last season, and is coming back strong for his senior year. Coach, Tyler Hoffman said matter-of-factly: "He's big, fast, and strong."

The 6-foot-6, 240 pounder will wreak havoc in the NUIC trenches, and his opponents know what he brings to the table, as well.

"He's a Division-I talent and a load to block up front," Dakota coach Joe Free said. "He works his butt off from seeing posts on social media and hearing his coaches rave about him at the all conference meeting. And, it definitely shows kids in our area that hard work pays off if you want something."

Cade Geiken, Aquin

The senior gives Aquin another powerful player on the front line, joining Clay Ludeking to form an intimidating tandem. The 5-foot-11, 255 pound Geiken is compact and aggressive.

Devin Gibson, Winnebago

The senior provides size and strength up front, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 280 pounds. But he brings something else to the table.

"He's naturally strong, you can just see that," Winnebago coach Mark Helm said. "But he's got a very high intelligence on the field. And for a guy who's just a second-year player, he really picks it up quickly."

Jermaine Ross, Lutheran

At 6-foot, 265 pounds, the junior has what Lutheran first-year coach Ron Gates calls "a very strong, very low center of gravity." Ross is able to move even bigger players aside. He will be tested in the BNC trenches this season, but his coach has confidence in him.

"He's strong," Gates said, "and he's going to be important for us down there."

Gavin Sigel, Eastland-Pearl City

The 300-pounder will be a playmaker for E-PC and coach Jared McNutt, who called Sigel a 300-pounder "who can move really well and control two gaps," and he showed flashes of that last season.

Jay Taft:; @JayTaft

Matt Trowbridge:; @matttrowbridge