DeKALB – Even though he was the play caller in the middle of the DeKalb defense, Keegan Smith's strategy on the field was a very simple one.
"I just tried to hit people. That pretty much is what it comes down to," Smith said. "Whatever running back it was, I just tried to hit him."
And hit them he did. The junior middle linebacker notched 150 tackles and was part of a speedy Barb defense that allowed less than 16 points per game. He was named the 2017 DeKalb Daily Chronicle Offensive Football Player of the Year.
On a defense loaded with senior talent, Smith stepped into the role in the middle of the field, something he did well from before the season even started, said DeKalb head coach Matt Weckler.
"He prepared himself very well in the offseason not only as a football player but a leader," Weckler said. "He did what he needed to do in the weight room and did some speed work as well and it carried over to the football field in terms of his stats and performance."
The defense had two shutouts on the year, didn't allow more than three scores in a game until Week 9, and had two shutouts and two other single-score performances.
Smith said the seniors on the team – particularly Zach Donahue, Nick Diaz and Noah Cooper on the defensive line – were crucial in the team's success. He also said the secondary with Brian Ross, Milo Johnson and junior Jordan Gandy helped him and fellow linebacker Dan Baggett in the middle.
"Our senior defensive linemen, Zach and Nick and Noah Cooper did an outstanding job all throughout the year, Lige Capples too," Smith said. "Plus our secondary, Brian, and Jordan and Milo really helped us out making it easier for me and Dan to get around the field."
The Barbs had a reputation the past couple years as an offensive team, and Smith said it was nice to be a part of a transition to being a defensively tough team.
"It was nice to have a defense that could win games if we had to," Smith said. "At some points we did, and that's different from what it's been in the past where the offense carried us. I think it was good to see our defense do that."
For the first time in five years under Weckler, the Barbs didn't advance further in the playoffs than they did the year before – after a semifinal berth in 2016, the team reached the second round in 2017. Smith said it was disappointing to leave the postseason so early.
Before Weckler's hire, the last time the Barbs reached the second round of the playoffs was 1989. Smith said the change in expectations is definitely a good sign for the direction of the program.
"Once he came here it really changed the culture a lot," Smith said. "Now we expect to, obviously make it past the second round, but our goal every year is to compete for a state championship. Anything short of that is a disappointment."
Even with the early exit, Smith still called it a successful season.
"We didn't make it quite as far as we wanted to in the playoffs obviously, but I think it was a pretty successful year," Smith said. "We played will together as a team. Our defense was pretty tough throughout the season against all the opponents we played, so I think it was pretty successful."
Weckler said any successful team is built from the middle out. So even though a ton of seniors are graduating from the defense, with Smith and Gandy, a safety, back next year, things are bright.
Smith said he's looking forward to the season already.
"Me and Jordan Gandy are really looking forward to leading the defense like that," Smith said, "and I think next year we'll be just as good. If not even better"
POY – Keegan Smith, jr., LB, DeKalb
Zach Donahue, sr., DL, DeKalb – Donahue made his presence felt in opponents' backfields this year with five sacks, eight tackles for losses and seven hurries. He also had a pass breakup as part of a DeKalb defense that shared a Northern Illinois Big 12 East title.
Drew Hahn, sr., DL, Kaneland – Hahn had 13 tackles for a loss this year and five sacks. The three-year varsity starter also recorded 59 tackles on the season.
Nick Diaz, sr., DL, DeKalb – Diaz made a home for himself hurrying opposing teams' quarterback, rushing 12 passes on the year, breaking up two, notching three sacks and getting two other tackles for losses.
Jacob Brown, sr., DL, Kaneland – Brown was a force for the Knights in their return to the playoffs and share of the Northern Illinois Big 12 East title. He had 59 tackles, 16 for a loss, and eight sacks. He also forced and recovered a fumble.
Cole Dunbar, sr., LB, Hiawatha – Dunbar did it all in four years with the Hawks – he was a starter on the offensive line for four years, started at linebacker for three and was the long snapper. He had 60 tackles on the year and forced a pair of fumbles and had two votes for Northeast Athletic Conference MVP.
Dan Baggett, sr., LB, DeKalb – Baggett teamed with Smith to form a fearsome linebacking duo for the Barbs, who reached the second round of the postseason. He has 115 tackles, second only to Smith, 16 of them for a loss, to go with five sacks.
Jackson Ebel, sr., LB, Genoa-Kingston – Ebel had a team-best 47 tackles. He also was a bruising fullback, complimenting Payton Phillips in the backfield and leading the team in carries. He scored 10 times and had 576 rushing yards.
Austin Perry, sr., LB, Sycamore – Perry led the Spartans in tackles with 88, and added 10 tackles for a loss and two sacks. He was first team all-conference.
Zach Carlsen, sr., DB, Sycamore – Carlsen was an all-conference selection after a 57-tackle season that included an interception. He missed one game due to injury. He also had a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Jordan Gandy, jr., DB, DeKalb – The safety was third on the Barbs with 65 tackles, seven pass breakups and an interception on the season. He even managed a tackle for a loss. He was also the team's third leading receiver with 19 catches for 229 yards and two scores.
Brian Ross, sr., DB, DeKalb – The NIU verbal commit – as a preferred walk-on – had 60 tackles and managed 10 pass breakups. He also added 268 receiving yards and three touchdowns and 14 catches on offense, including hauling in a game-winning touchdown as time expired against Lake Park.
Griffin Nelson, jr., P, Sycamore – The first-team all conference punter average 30.8 yards per kick for the Spartans.
Honorable mention – Manny Dominguez, soph., DB, Sycamore; Donovan Lacey, soph., LB, DeKalb; Miguel Delvalle, jr., LB, Hiawatha; Nate Nessler, jr., DB, Genoa-Kingston; Harry Barrett, sr., DE, Hiawatha; Riley O'Hern, sr., LB, Hiawatha