The numbers are glaring.
Six points given up a game.
Less than 138 total yards surrendered on average.
Ten interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries.
The list could go on, but the numbers alone explain why Gregg Nesbitt ranks this season’s defense among the best units his 12 years as Hickman’s coach.
Hickman (7-1) plays Jefferson City (6-3) in the Kewpies’ final District 6 game at 7 tonight at Adkins Stadium.
A Hickman win will put them to 3-0 in districts and send them to the state quarterfinals against DeSmet (9-0), who has clinched its district.
A Kewpie loss, coupled with a Rock Bridge loss, would put Hickman into a three-way tie with Jefferson City and Fort Zumwalt West. If Rock Bridge wins and Hickman loses, Jefferson City will advance to the quarterfinals.
Nesbitt said with eight senior returning starters, he had a feeling before the season that his defense would be a difference maker. He hesitated to predict that the Kewpies would perform as well as they have, though.
“To say that we’re playing at the level that we are (right now),” Nesbitt said, “that was at our highest expectation.”
The Kewpies have improved each week, giving up only 11 points in the past 18 quarters.
Whether facing a smashmouth running attack against Rockhurst in Week 2 or a high-powered passing game against Rock Bridge last week, a soft spot in Hickman’s defense has yet to reveal itself.
“It’s a team that doesn’t have any glaring weakness,” Nesbitt said. “Solid against the run, solid against the pass, solid inside, solid outside.”
The depth of the unit begins with the front four of Luke Harper, Alex Geiger, Dannon Coleman and Devin Coleman. The combination of strength from Harper and Geiger on the interior and the speed of the Coleman twins at the ends is what Nesbitt said separates this defense athletically from others around the state.
“A lot of high school kids have the ability play fundamentally at the line of scrimmage,” Nesbitt said, “but these guys can run pretty well also.”
The success of the Kewpies’ defensive line causes a trickle-down effect, allowing the linebackers and secondary to make key plays, something with which Hickman has grown accustomed.
Aaron Cawlfield, one of the few juniors who starts on the defense, has taken advantage of playmaking opportunities all season. Cawlfield leads the team in solo tackles (57), forced fumbles (five) and quarterback sacks (five), along with five blocked punts on special teams.
Cawlfield’s emergence as a linebacker, according to Nesbitt, has propelled the defense to a higher level than he would have predicted coming into this season.
“He’s a little bit of an unknown,” Nesbitt said. “He’s been better than advertised. His flat out speed allows him to do things that other good kids that we’ve had had not been able too.”
Because of the defensive line’s play, flying to the ball has become a familiar sight when watching Cawlfield.
“Rarely, do we ever have an offensive lineman come off freely to get to one of the linebackers,” Cawlfield said. “I have all the freedom in the world to get where I need to on the field. All I have to do is run to ball, and that’s what I’m good at.”
Behind Cawlfield is a secondary filled with experience, boasting seniors at all four positions. Nesbitt said that experience has prevented too many big plays from opposing offenses this season.