HAVERFORD >> Nick DiIorio is the biggest of Haverford High’s starting defensive linemen, even if he’s as lean as a Slim Jim.
“Let me give you the physical stats,” coach Joe Gallagher said after practice Wednesday, turning the pages of Haverford’s program book. “He’s the big guy at 6-2, 205. And this is notable because of the way they’re playing.”
DiIorio is the engine. The lone returning starter on the D-line from last season’s Central League championship squad, DiIorio has made the others around him better. Rookie varsity starters Kevin Odgers (5-9, 185), Tyler Kimble (6-2, 190) and Pat Boyle (5-8, 190) have flourished along with DiIorio, the veteran of the bunch.
“We’re not overwhelming anybody with gigantic size,” Gallagher said. “But they’re solid kids in that 180-190 (pound) range. Not gigantic, but they’re very quick and they’re very strong, I’ll give them that. And that’s really the key, the quickness and the strength.”
DiIorio’s play has earned rave reviews. In his 24th season at Haverford, Gallagher called DiIorio one of the best he’s coached.
That’s high praise.
“He’s playing as good as any defensive lineman has ever played for me. Period,” Gallagher said.
Coming into the year, DiIorio focused on becoming a faster and more efficient defensive player.
“I tried to get quicker off the ball, in general. I also wanted to work on my pass rush and get to the quarterback a little bit quicker,” he said. “I definitely think I have quickness to my advantage, and I try to use that as much as possible.”
DiIorio has registered a handful of sacks and tackles for a loss for the Fords (2-2), who look for their third straight win Friday night when they host Strath Haven (2-2).
Since their surprising season-opening setback at Chester, DiIorio and the Haverford defense have allowed just seven points in their last three contests. Those seven points were given up in the fourth quarter against Ridley in Week 2.
“There’s definitely been a big change. It starts at practice, where we realized that we’ve got to step it up,” DiIorio said. “The Ridley game (in Week 2, a 7-0 loss), we only let up the seven points, the one touchdown, and that was (late) in the game. We realized that we want to give up less every game. The last two weeks, with the shutouts (over Conestoga and Penncrest), that’s because we’ve been really working hard in practice and taking it one game at a time.”
Gallagher knew it would take time for his offense, under sophomore quarterback Jake Ruane, to hit its stride. Sure enough, Ruane and the Fords offense have been impressive over the last two weeks.
But Gallagher always believed his defense would be the squad’s strong point. In addition to DiIorio, the Fords also have three returning linebackers, including All-Delco Jack Farrell, and defensive backs Chris Trainor and Corey Hunt.
“We have a number of returners and the guys who are replacing the guys we lost, they’re really solid players. That’s kind of how we viewed our season,” Gallagher said.
Haverford is allowing an average of 7.8 points per game. Its defense has yielded an average of 173 yards. Take away the season opener, in which the defense gave up 322 yards, the Fords have held their last three opponents to a total of 372 yards.
“As we go through it, we are leaning on our defense and we felt coming in that we could be really good on D. We really did believe that,” Gallagher said. “The greatest thing is the guys who are now first-year starters, the guys who have stepped up, are doing an awesome job. In particular, the defensive line is playing lights out.”
The Fords have their sights set on conquering Strath Haven, which is better than its 2-2 record would indicate. You could argue the Panthers let one slip away Week 1 against Interboro (4-0), and they hung tough in a 38-17 defeat to Ridley (4-0) last week.
“They’re definitely a much-improved team and it’s going to be a great competition between both of us,” DiIorio said. “Their running backs and their tight end look much more improved. Overall, their team just looks pretty good on film.”
With an improving offense and a rock-solid defense, the Fords don’t intend to just lay down and give up their Central League title.
DiIorio will tell you that all he’s worried about is beating Strath Haven Friday night.
“To be honest, I don’t even know who we play next week or the week after that,” he said. “I just take it game by game, and whoever the coaches say we play on Saturday, that’s who I look at. But I don’t look at the schedule at all.”
It’s that laser focus that helps keep DiIorio and the Haverford defensive line on a steady rise.