Physical. Tough. Hard-nosed. Strong. Aggressive.
The Duncan Demons have worked hard to achieve that identity this season, as they have evolved into a smash-mouth style team, centered around experienced linemen.
Through the first seven weeks of the season, teams have tried to test just how tough Duncan’s defense is, sending their running backs between the tackles. More often than not, those ball carries have been greeted by 911 pounds of strength and aggression, also known as Duncan’s front four.
After graduating most of their starters, Duncan came into the season with a largely inexperienced squad. That was not the case on the defensive line, though, as the Demons boasted a veteran unit of seniors that includes tackles Derek McKnight (5-foot-11, 263 pounds) and Caleb Longest (6-1, 247) as well as defensive ends Cameron McGill (5-11, 204) and John Jones (5-9, 197).
“We communicate really well together,” McKnight said. “We know what each other is thinking when a play is going down.”
The foursome has amassed 129 tackles, 13 sacks and another 17 tackles for a loss this season. Though they often only play with six players in the box as they line up in nickel and dime formations, the Demons have had little problem shutting down the run, holding opponents to an average of 135.1 yards per game on the ground.
What makes them so good at stopping the run?
“Those big ol’ boys right there,” McGill said, pointing at McKnight and Longest. “They can both squat a ton.”
For the record, McKnight squats around 500 pounds, while Longest squats about 450.
But more than just bruit strength, all four have experience and all four know exactly what they are supposed to do.
“We’ve got more responsibility this year,” Longest said of playing a four-man front with just two linebacker behind them. “We have to stress more on technique when we get into that.”
While all four certainly have natural athleticism — Jones and McGill are accomplished wrestlers, while Longest plays for the basketball team and McKnight is a state champion shot puter — they worked hard to improve their strength and technique coming into the season.
None of the four missed a single “summer pride” session, and Longest hasn’t missed one since middle school.
“It’s the exception rather than what seems to happen all the time, but sometimes you just have a special group of kids” Duncan coach Jim Holloway said of four’s dedication over the summer. “No. 1, they’ve got to like each other and care about each other because they spend so much time together. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t show up every day. But they care a lot about each other and they care a lot about the team and the program and they understand what it takes to win.”
What the four seniors understand is that for Duncan to win, they have to keep their opponent in check.
The Demons’ offense is averaging 20.6 points per game, with more than a third of their points coming in a blowout win over Capitol Hill. Without that game, Duncan is averaging just 15.8 points per outing, putting the burden on the defense to keep opponents out of the end zone. So far, Duncan is allowing just 18.1 points per game from its foes, holding five of their seven opponents to just two scores.
“Every game starts with us,” Jones said. “It starts in the trenches, so we have to do our job.”
McKnight leads the unit with 43 tackles, four sacks and three tackles for a loss, while Longest has made 33 stops, five tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Jones has racked up 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks, and McGill has made 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks.
“I think we have improved on our pursuit to the ball,” Longest said. “Not necessarily in the backfield, but once they get across the line of scrimmage, we have improved a lot on pursuing afterward.”
“When you watch on film, we’ve got a whole host of Demons on everybody,” McKnight added. “The whole team is right there.”
As important as the defensive line’s role has been in the first seven weeks, it will be even more important in the final three games of the regular season as Duncan tries to put itself in position for a district title.
With a loss to Lawton MacArthur last week, the Demons would need to win out to finish in a three-way tie with MacArthur and Del City for the title, at which point first, second and third place would be decided by margin of victory during the season.
It’s no guarantee still, that if Duncan wins its final three that it will be the district champion or even get a home playoff game, but it’s the only way they even have a chance.
“(Winning district) is really my apex as a goal,” Jones said. “Ever sine I’ve played high school football, we’ve been so close.”
The Demons will look to begin that final push tonight as they travel to Southeast for a 7 p.m. kickoff, looking to spark a three-game winning streak and get the taste of defeat out of their mouths.
“We’ve got a fighter’s mentality,” Longest said. “You take a big blow like we did last week, you’ve just got to have a fighter’s mentality and come back and win out.”
Not on Duncan’s front four
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