Wetzel, Rodgers power Heritage Hills' defenseNovember 14, 2019
By JONATHAN SAXON
LINCOLN CITY — A lot has been said this season about Heritage Hills’ dominant rushing attack, which the team uses to pound opponents into submission as it chews up the clock for four quarters of play. However, it’s hard to ignore how dominant the Patriots have been when it comes to the defensive side of the equation.
The Patriots have averaged allowing less than seven points per game in 12 outings, and have shut out their opponents four times this season. They also boast three games in which they allowed only six points. The Patriots have only given up more than two touchdowns once this season, during their Nov. 1 sectional semifinal game against Gibson Southern, when the Titans scored 20 points. Heritage Hills has also generated 30 takeaways this season (23 interceptions, 7 fumble recoveries).
“We knew we had the opportunity to be good defensively,” Heritage Hills coach Todd Wilkerson said. “This group has got a lot of talent; a lot of pieces have come together. Our defensive coaches, Chris Sigler and Kevin Tempel, in terms of the preparation they put in to get us ready every week, they’ve been outstanding all year.”
In the middle of the stout unit stands perhaps the Patriots' two greatest weapons: Jacob Wetzel and Phoenix Rodgers, both senior linebackers. When they’re done trampling over their opponents from their fullback spots, Wetzel and Rodgers switch right over to anchor the middle of a defense they believe can become that reliable backstop that halts opposing offenses in their tracks when needed.
“We imagined being [a unit] that, if we needed a stop, our defense was going to do it,” said Wetzel, who has 111 tackles so far this season. “We’re going to go out there and be physical on all levels.”
“We all knew that we had to work hard and together as one big group,” added Rodgers, who leads the team with 113 tackles. “With the athletes and weapons that we have, we’re all strong in our individual ways.”
Both Wetzel and Rodgers fly to the ball once they sniff out where the play is going, and both are sure-handed tacklers who bring their opponents to the ground once they get hold of them. Wilkerson said they have been outstanding all season long and thinks their combination of coachability, physicality and natural instincts for following the football makes them a load for any offense to contend with.
“They’re tough to handle in the middle,” Wilkerson said. “They’re physical kids. You've got to have two guys in the center of your defense that are going to hit people. Some kids are hitters and some kids aren’t. Both those guys are hitters.”
Wetzel and Rodgers have had to deal with all kinds of offenses this season, from the conservative teams who barely leave the ground to the more spread-oriented squads that want to air it out every chance they get. It’s all business for them as they go about their routine through the week, which consists of film studying and getting as many reps as possible against the scout team in practice. It’s all about being flexible and prepared for anything that could come up during the game.
“Throughout the week you’re repping their offensive look,” Wetzel said. “So you have to get your mind ready whenever Friday night lights hit.”
“We play aggressive, but we can also play soft if we need to,” Rodgers added. “We’re more aggressive most of the time, but either way, we can play both ways.”
Saturday will be their biggest challenge yet, as the Patriots prepare to play Lawrenceburg in the regional round. The Tigers (11-1) pose a unique challenge with sophomore dual-threat quarterback Garrett Yoon, but both guys are confident in their preparation and look forward to seizing the challenge of stepping up to get the stops they need to keep the season alive.
“We’re looking into their quarterback being able to run the ball,” Rodgers said. “We’re not putting anything past them. We’re trying to get the best look that we can in practice and try to predict what they're going to do.”
“Staying focused and reading your keys,” Wetzel added. “That’s what we have to do.”
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