MAPLE PARK – Justin Diddell, Bradley Johnson and Jaumaureo Phillips staggered behind one another into the Kaneland library for film study earlier this week.
The students filing out at the end of the school day couldn’t help noticing the Knights’ defensive front three, above and beyond the usual hallway star quality that accompanies playing football for a Class 5A state power.
Seated and smiling at a nearby table, Kaneland defensive coordinator Keith Snyder assessed the trio as it entered, one by one. Apart from the grins, the Knights (10-0) expect the same treatment from opposing fans for today’s second-round playoff game at Lincoln-Way West (7-3).
“If people know who we’ve been in the past, now they see us and really more than anything, we get the, ‘Where are those guys from?’ because they’re not used to seeing Kaneland with that kind of size up front,” Snyder said. “I mean, Jomo’s 340 (pounds), Justin’s 280 and Bradley’s 250. I don’t know many lines in the state of Illinois that are going to put three guys that big out there. So we get a few looks.”
Kaneland installed its 3-5 defense in 2009, well after the vaunted spread offense that has defined the program throughout the region for years. This season’s defensive line might have brought the most bulk, but it initially fell short on experience.
Between Diddell (6-foot-4), Phillips (6-4) and Johnson (6-5), the Knights knew they had nearly unmatched size, an asset that helped compensate for the unit’s combined zero varsity starts entering the season.
After a surprise squeaker at Chicago Brooks in Week 1, Kaneland asserted its defense to clinch its third successive unbeaten regular season and Northern Illinois Big 12 East title. The Knights registered shutouts of Sterling, Streator and Yorkville before rolling past Belvidere, 48-0, in last week’s playoff opener. Kaneland won last season’s first-round meeting with the Bucs, 51-45.
“Just working hard every day. Having the coaches yell at us. Having a good time. Working out over the summer,” said Diddell, a junior strong-side end. “Everything just builds up onto the season and we’re just able to fire off the ball because we have that mental focus when we’re out on the field.”
The line’s effectiveness has a positive ripple effect on the back eight, namely a linebacking corps anchored by “Mike” backer Gary Koehring, who Lincoln-Way West coach Dave Ernst called “probably as good a linebacker as we’ve seen all year long.”
At times, the defensive front also boosts the offense. In Week 9, Knights coach Tom Fedderly unveiled a jumbo package that included placing Phillips at offensive tackle and shifting Diddell – a Texas native – in as an up-back.
Phillips, a junior nose tackle, spent his lower-level career as an offensive lineman and has enjoyed returning to his roots from time to time.
“It’s always good to beat the opponent across from you,” Phillips said. “And constantly doing it and feeling good about it and just working hard at it.”
Phillips’ grasp of offensive blocking fundamentals was a good base for defense when assistant Patrick Ryan suggested a position switch in preseason. Phillips also visited a handful of linemen-centered summer camps, notably one at Northwestern.
Kaneland’s veteran-heavy offensive line of Zach Theis, Shane Jorgensen, Nick Sharp, Joe Komel and Alex Snyder – no relation to Keith – proved a tough lineup to crack. As Phillips handled himself during the first round of “Oklahoma” and other hitting drills on the first day of full-contact practices in August, coaches smiled some more.
“We felt our O-line was pretty good,” Keith Snyder said. “So we thought if he can get after our guys, what can he do against other people?”
Through 10 games, Diddell, Phillips and Johnson – a senior end – largely have had their way with opposing offensive lines.
The Knights expect a sizable test today in Lincoln-Way West’s 6-7, 297-pound left tackle Colin McGovern, a Notre Dame recruit, but are confident they can turn some more heads.
“We’re a big group of kids and we just do the things we’ve been taught to do,” Johnson said. “And it’s working for us.”