LIONVILLE >> Going up against the Downingtown East defensive line is like running into a brick wall … but that wall can really move.
Just ask Ches-Mont foes Unionville and Avon Grove. In the last two outings against the Indians and the Red Devils, the Cougars’ front wall has surrendered less than a yard per carry (about seven-tenths of a yard to be more precise), and just 100 total yards, in eight quarters of football.
The dynamic and dominating front wall is a big reason Downingtown East is leading Chester County in total defense, surrendering an average of 209 yards per contest. In five outings so far, the 4-1 Cougars have allowed more than seven points just once — a 23-7 Week 2 setback to powerful North Penn — and the opposition is having a particularly hard time finding any room to run the football.
The Cougars host West Chester Henderson Saturday night at Kottmeyer Stadium
“These guys are all cut from the same piece of cloth,” said East head coach Mike Matta when asked about his defensive line. “They work really hard in the weight room, they are strong and physically imposing, but they aren’t sloppy big. They are athletic. That’s what, maybe, sets them apart from some other big kids.
“Plus they are all hard workers, they want to be good and they push each other, which is good.”
The Cougars’ D-line is big and deep. The six-man rotation averages 6-foot-3, 233-pounds per player. The leader of the group is 6-4, 250-pound senior tackle Will Kiely, who has committed to play collegiately at William & Mary, and has been practically living in the opposition backfield. Senior end Shane Hogarth (6-4, 250) has also been getting plenty of looks from FCS schools like Bucknell and Marist.
The rest of the regulars are juniors, including Connor Munnelly (6-2, 250), Nica Hesel (6-5, 200), Joe Janick (6-2, 225) and Nadier Johnson (6-2, 225), a transfer from archrival Coatesville.
“We knew we were going to be good this season,” said Munnelly, who can play at either end or tackle.
“I really thought they were going to be this good,” Matta added. “Will and Shane are returning starters, Connor had played a lot, Nica was coming on as a sophomore and we just got kind of lucky with Nadier because he moved into the area.”
Despite an aggressive non-conference slate that included Roman Catholic and Delaware Valley (in addition to North Penn), Downingtown East is allowing just 2.4 yards per attempt on the ground, and just under 84 rushing yards per game. And the Cougars force more negative yardage plays than any other in the county.
“Getting penetration is a major key for us. Our job is to be disruptive,” Kiely explained.
“We can’t wait for Friday nights, where we can get out there and hit someone else,” added Hogarth. “As soon as we get to the point where they are frustrated, that’s when we really get after people. We want to make it so they don’t really want to play anymore.”
Matta acknowledges his team has yet to surrender an explosive running play this season. But he also says that the interior line has made significant strides, especially in the last few weeks.
“It’s taken some time for them to gel, and for us to figure out the best way to use them,” he said. “I’ve been pretty pleased with them.
“We’ve been pretty solid up front and our linebackers back them up pretty good. And we think we have two of the best corners in the Ches-Mont (in Jeremy Jennings and Brassir Stocker). So as a defense, every part is important.”
The Cougars will be tested, however, starting with Saturday’s Ches-Mont National clash with Henderson and its deceptive triple option. But the big challenge will be on Oct. 7, when Coatesville brings the area’s most explosive attack to Kottmeyer Stadium for a showdown that could decide the division championship.
The recipe for success against a high-octane attack starts with the defensive line. If Downingtown East can win in the trenches, and continue to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing, it would lessen the pressure on the back end and go a long way toward successfully defending its National Division crown. And the Cougars have the depth and versatility up front to make it happen.
“It’s nice to be able to put different guys in different positions so we can give (opponents) a different look that maybe they haven’t seen before,” Hogarth said.
“We have a six-, and at times seven-man rotation,” Matta added. “We try to keep them fresh. We will move Will to the outside on passing downs because he is so dominant. Shane and Connor can play outside or in.”
This particular group has been working together on a daily basis since early January, lifting weights and running four times a week. And they are close off the field.
“We have a lot of chemistry as a defensive line,” Kiely said. “We hang out, and we communicate well with each other on the field. I think that’s helped us get better.”
As Matta alluded, the D-Line is competitive in everything it does, on game days, in practice, and even in the weight room.
“We lift as a unit,” Munnelly said.
“And if somebody lifts 405, the next guy bumps it up to 410, and so on,” Kiely pointed out. “We are always trying to push each other.”
And even though the Downingtown East interior line is big physically, this unit sets itself apart because it has a half dozen big guys that can move. Strength is just one part of the equation. Quickness and agility is the other, and a combination of the two is a rarity.
“We have a lot of guys who are athletic,” Hogarth said.
“It’s very important because when we run stunts, and in order to get into certain gaps, it takes a lot of technique, skill and footwork,” Kiely added.
The Cougars surrendered just 27 yards of total offense in week four against Avon Grove. Even though it seems like it would be near impossible to improve on that performance, Downingtown East may have done it a week later at Unionville. Facing an offense that wants to establish a running game first and foremost, East limited Unionville to 27 yards on the ground in 41 attempts.
“The way we destroyed Unionville, we were kind of like, ‘wow.’ It was great,” Johnson said.
“We take a lot of pride in stopping the run,” Munnelly added. “This is a hard working group of guys that love playing and dominating.”