Seminole Ridge players take ownership of stout defense
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
by Matt Porter
Before a center snap in last week's game against Palm Beach Central, Seminole Ridge senior safety Mike Almonte saw defensive coordinator Justin Hilliker make the wrong call. In the Hawks' cover-3 formation, a teammate was headed to the wrong side of the field.
"He knew just how to fix it," Hilliker said.
Almonte, the free safety, called to sophomore strong safety Jalen Young, who nodded back. Almonte pointed at his coach and gave a thumbs-up. Moments later, senior defensive end Jason Shepherd rushed Central's backfield and swatted away the pass like a fly.
"That's where watching film and studying comes in," Almonte said. "In practice, we do a lot of the communication ourselves. When it comes to the game, it's second nature."
Almonte is one of many Hawks who came up through Ridge's junior varsity, receiving weekly quizzes on what checks and blitzes to run out of different personnel packages. Once he reached the varsity, he was confident enough to run it. While the Hawks (8-2) are known for their grind-it-out running game, their defense has allowed 92.5 rushing yards and 16.4 points per game, and is just as much a reason why they'll host Weston-Cypress Bay in a Class 8A regional final Friday night.
While some coaches, even those of playoff teams, scream at their defensive players for four quarters, Ridge players have their coaches' trust.
"There's certain games where I don't call a single defense," Hilliker said. "We give it to them. They take ownership of making calls."
In last week's 31-7 regional semifinal win against Palm Beach Central, the Hawks nearly shut out the county's top-scoring and top-gaining offense among large schools, a run-heavy attack that averaged more than 30 points and 300 yards per game.
Ridge uses a 3-4 formation and loves to blitz. While Almonte and lock-down corner Omar Pierre-Louis are part of a strong third level and all of the Hawks' linebackers are smart and steady, the defensive line is where Ridge does most of its damage.
Coaches let 6-foot-3, 200-pound roving linebacker Rayfield Dixon and Shepherd, a 6-1, 240-pound defensive end, call out wrinkles to confuse opposing offensive lines. The Hawks' top college recruit, 6-foot-2, 280-pound senior tackle Kyle Shortridge, is forever swimming and swatting his way across the line. Anyone can blitz anyone else's gap.
"We want complete chaos," Hilliker said. "As the boys here like to say, we want a party in the opponent's backfield."
Hilliker learned how to throw those kind of parties in high school, when he played offensive line at Jupiter. Now-retired head coach Charlie Persson and current Ridge head coach Matt Dickmann, then Persson's top assistant, taught him how to make stars go into hiding. "One year we played Glades Central and Santonio Holmes," Hilliker recalled of the veteran NFL receiver. "Santonio Holmes had one catch for 12 yards. The other receivers had, like, 12 catches for 200 yards and they beat us 33-0. But we weren't going to let their best player beat us."
That's how they plan to stop Cypress Bay (10-2), which has a heavyweight running game similar to Ridge's. The Lightning eat both clock and turf with 5-10, 200-pound senior running back Matt Dayes, who leads Broward County in rushing yards (1,435 on 204 attempts) and touchdowns (20). He's been on fire lately, with 554 yards and eight touchdowns in his past three games. He even gained 171 total yards against Bradenton-Manatee, the top-ranked team in the nation. That game was one of Cypress Bay's two losses; the other was against always-powerful Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas.
But Ridge has always felt confident it can stop the best. There haven't been too many nights where believing in their defense has failed them.
"I think a lot of high school coaches feel it's very risky to trust their kids to do this, to put it on them," Hilliker said. "You do take a risk when you put this in the kids' hands. But it's part of teaching them -- you do the right things, and good things will happen."