By MIKE BLACKERBY
West has a well-earned reputation for playing great defense under coach Lamar Brown.
But these 2020 Rebels have taken it to even another level.
Consider West’s gaudy team numbers on defense …
- Seven teams have scored seven points or less against the Rebels.
- 116 TFLs and 37.5 quarterback sacks.
- West allows just 44 yards rushing and 182 total yards a game.
- The Rebels have forced 27 turnovers, including 20 interceptions.
- Perhaps most telling, 59 of 118 possessions (50 percent) by opponents have resulted in three-and-outs.
Yep, West’s defense has it all.
The Rebels have plenty of athleticism, they play with tremendous effort and utilize great technique.
“I would have to say it’s the best defense we’ve had since I’ve been at West,” said Brown.
The matchup of West’s defense and Oak Ridge’s offense will be a key on Friday when the Region 3 foes collide in a Class 5A state quarterfinal contest in Knoxville.
The Rebels (12-1) pinned a 22-7 setback on the Wildcats (9-3) back on Sept. 17.
West’s defense was stifling in that game as the Rebels held Oak Ridge to minus-16 yards rushing and 51 yards in total offense. West also came up with three interceptions in the win.
“Not only did West have the best defense we faced all year, they had the best team we’ve faced,” said Oak Ridge coach Joe Gaddis.
The West-Oak Ridge winner advances to host next week’s semifinal game against the winner of South-Doyle and Central.
Here’s a closer look by position at what makes this Rebels 3-4 defense so special.
Up front: undersized, but relentless
DE – Andrew Gilbert 5-10, 230, sr.
NG – R.J. Collins 5-9, 225, sr.
DE – Noah Giger 6-3, 240, jr.
Walker Valley coach Drew Akins called West’s Andrew Gilbert the “best lineman we’ve seen this year” following last week’s 32-3 loss to the Rebels.
Gilbert, a high-energy three-year starter, has 56.5 tackles, 18.5 TFLs and 9.5 sacks.
“He (Gilbert) gave us fits last time,” said Gaddis.
“This kid is just so quick and dominant. He’s not big, he’s just good.”
Brown said Gilbert sets the standard for intensity and the other Rebels follow his lead on defense.
“You always know what you’re going to get with Andrew Gilbert,” said Brown.
“His motor is unbelievable. It’s that way every snap.”
R.J. Collins looks like he could be Gilbert’s body double at nose guard and Noah Giger is an emerging star.
“Everything we do defensively starts with those three,” said Brown.
“We want those three to eat up those five offensive linemen. They’re good in technique and they’re very good at getting off blocks, but what sets them apart is the effort they give,” continued Brown.
“The biggest testament to that group is we give up only about 40 yards rushing a game.”
Linebackers: they play ‘downhill’
ILB – Ethan Scott 5-11, 210, sr.
ILB – Jack Eggleston 6-1, 210, sr.
OLB – Franklin Smith 6-4, 220, sr.
OLB – Isaac Bohleber 6-0, 190, jr.
Ethan Scott has had an all-state kind of year for the Rebels on defense.
He has a team-high 91.5 tackles with 18.5 TFLs, four sacks, four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
Eggleston is right behind Scott with 67 tackles.
“Those are our top-two tacklers and they’re both downhill linebackers,” said Brown.
“(Bohleber and Smith) are two guys who don’t have flashy stats, but both do their jobs well.”
Junior Zion Mattress was a starting linebacker until he was involved in an automobile accident several weeks ago and sidelined with a concussion.
Mattress was off to a great start with 14 TFLs and five sacks.
Brown said he is unsure when Mattress will return.
Defensive backs: In your face
CB – Shannon Blair 6-1, 165, jr.
CB – Armoni Hicks 6-0, 165, sr.
S – Elijah Rogers 6-2. 185, soph.
S – Jaqurius Wrenn 5-11, 160, soph.
Wrenn, Rogers and Blair have three interceptions apiece.
West plays a mixture of man and zone pass defense.
When the Rebels go man, cornerbacks Shannon Blair and Elijah Rogers are capable of locking down receivers and freeing up the defensive front seven to control the run and attack the quarterback.
“There’s not a kid in Knoxville I’d trade for Shannon Blair,” offered Brown.
“Lost in the shuffle, (Armoni Hicks) has had a really good year. He has had about two balls caught on him all year. Elijah Rogers and Jaqurius Wrenn are two long bodies in the center of the field. Both have had great years.”
Analysis: Oak Ridge offense vs. West defense
So how does Oak Ridge move the ball on the Rebels Friday night after struggling mightily in the previous meeting?
There’s no easy solution.
The good news for the Wildcats is junior tailback Kendall Jackson has returned to form after battling midseason injuries.
Jackson was held to 4 yards on 10 carries by the Rebels last time out, but he was at less than 100 percent after missing the previous two games because of injuries.
Oak Ridge has to get more out of Jackson and the running game Friday, but the Wildcats can’t make a living running at the middle of the West defense.
They’ll have to get creative in the run game.
Wildcats quarterback Mitchell Gibbons must be on top of his game for Oak Ridge to have a chance.
The Wildcats’ best hopes for moving the ball will likely be in the passing game.
Oak Ridge receivers Brandon Heyward, Johnathan Stewart, Jubrice Taylor and Preston Turner are all capable threats.
Gibbons had little time to throw last time against the Rebels, so short passes in space and slant throws appear to be the best bets against West.
Heyward, in particular, has shown a penchant for taking short passes and turning them into long plays.
Oak Ridge has to hope for some explosive offensive plays, but that’s easier said than done against the West defense.