Watch out: The high-scoring Peoria High football team can play a little defense, too
PEORIA — Prior to the season, Tim Thornton had a pretty good feeling about his defense.
“Defensively, we’re looking as good as we’ve looked in a really long time,” the Peoria High coach had said on the first day of practice. “… We’re still going to score points, but I think defense is going to be better than it has been.”
Turns out the 13-year Central coach was very right.
The Lions defense came to play in Saturday’s 64-28 victory over Big 12 Conference rival Manual at Peoria Stadium. Class 5A fifth-ranked Peoria High (5-0, 3-0), which now has a short week with a visit to Richwoods (1-4, 1-3) at 6 p.m. Thursday, is allowing 21.2 points per game.
“We’re off to a great start,” Thornton said. “We keep watching film and seeing things we got to fix. I like the way it’s improving every week for sure.”
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So, what is the defense’s biggest strength?
“All of us,” Gary Rutherford said. “I just play my role and my position. I trust everybody else to play their role and play their position. We just get the job done.”
The junior linebacker has moved to the middle from the outside, becoming the signal caller on the defensive side of the ball. Thornton says Rutherford is as fast as anybody he’s had at that position, which really makes a big difference.
At 6-foot-3 and 199 pounds, Rutherford also plays wide receiver but relishes his role as that mike linebacker.
“The feeling of being the quarterback of the defense is great,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff you have to pay attention to … you have to call all the plays. You see a lot of stuff and they rely on you to get your call to the whole defense.”
Those other 10 guys depending on Rutherford consist of four big-time players. Defensive backs Kenny Rutherford and Eli McFadden, along with linemen Tejuan Smith and Landon Newby-Holesome are the core of Peoria High defenders.
All have the experience and knowledge of what plays are being called.
“I think it’s everybody kind of getting comfortable with the language whether it’s coaches, players, whatever,” Thornton said on his effective defense. “That extra time in the system has made a big difference. We’ve got some guys that really run around and get after it.”
Smith, who was an all-Big 12 second-team selection last season, lines up as a defensive end but can play off-the-ball linebacker if needed. When he’s on the line, the 5-foot-10, 184-pound senior teams with Newby-Holesome, a 6-foot, 231 pounder senior, who plays fullback on offense.
Those two together make it very tough sledding for opponents.
“His football savvy allows him to do a lot of things,” Thorton said of Smith.
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As for the secondary, Kenny Rutherford — cousin to Gary Rutherford — and McFadden are showing they can lockdown just about anyone. Peoria High plays man coverage on every snap, meaning the defensive backfield is shadowing their receiver counterparts on any route.
That has proven to be stressful at times, according to Kenny Rutherford.
“If one person misses an assignment, it’s a touchdown,” he said, “so as long as we do what got to do and everybody (does) their assignment, we’ll be fine.
“We got a lot of dogs … it’s just how we are.”
One distinct advantage Peoria High’s defense holds over opponents is practicing daily against the up-tempo Lions offense. Peoria High averages 52 points a game after back-to-back-to-back 60-plus outings in Week 3 and 4, followed by the 64 points dropped on the Rams.
Most of the time practice for the defense has turned out to be harder than games.
“When we get in the game, it moves way slower than practice,” Gary Rutherford said. “Our offense pushes way faster than the game actually moves.”
Added Kenny Rutherford, “We’re going way faster (in practice), but, in a game, everything just slows down.”
Thornton says when Peoria High gets ahead early, they can force the game’s tempo. He estimates his team is playing 180-220 snaps a contest. Most teams play half that number.
“With what we do on offense," Thornton said, "we give our defense more series to defend than anyone else in the area by a lot."
Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.