Through two weeks, it has been business as usual for Allen.
From the 2-0 start, buoyed by wins over a pair of teams ranked in the state’s top 15 entering the season, to the manner in which those victories have come about, there has been plenty of familiarity in the way the Eagles have conducted themselves early into the year.
That includes the defensive line, a unit — like pretty much everywhere else on the Allen defense — hemorrhaged by graduation, including five all-district selections — four of whom committed to play football in college.
The word “starter” has been always been a bit of a loose term when discussing the Eagles’ defensive line, however. Whereas names like alums Jayden Jernigan and Seth Mason were entrenched as multi-year fixtures up front, Allen has always prioritized depth within that unit and the ability to continuously rotate fresh bodies in at those four positions has been integral to sustaining the Eagles’ consistency in the trenches over the years.
“With our front four, we roll a lot of guys in. It’s not just those four, it’s about eight to 10 of them who do a great job,” said Terry Gambill, Allen head coach. “They’re doing a great job in how they prepare, so their success hasn’t been a surprise. It’s about the way they’re being coached and the way they’re practicing.”
It helps so players like seniors Cole Latos (two tackles and one sack) and Michael Onwuzurike (six tackles), two backups-turned-starters, won’t be taken aback by expanded roles. Last year, despite being reserves, the two logged at least 275 snaps each, including plenty of meaningful reps in the postseason against heavyweight programs like Duncanville, The Woodlands and Waco Midway.
Those two are joined up front by senior Malik Allen, another 2018 backup, as well as senior Elijah Fisher, who made the move to defensive end after submitting an all-district campaign as a tight end last season.
“It wasn’t really a ‘me’ decision,” Fisher said on the position change. “It was something where I told them, ‘Hey, if you guys need help at a different position, please put me there.’ I would rather win first than worry about myself.”
Fisher has taken to his new post quite well early on, totaling 13 tackles (two for loss), three sacks and one forced fumble through his first two games as a defensive lineman, including a strip sack last week against Dickinson.
“I had a couple cues from the tackle that I saw,” Fisher said. “The first thing I did was split out a bit to widen the alignment, then I pinned my ears back and took off. When I got to [the quarterback], I saw his arm was down, so I had to reach around him to try and get the ball out. Cole Latos was there as well, which made it a bit easier.”
His three sacks are among the Eagles’ 12 total as a team, with senior linebacker Jaden Healy, also a fixture in the Eagles’ pass rush, and senior Lane Lewis, a backup defensive end, leading the way with 3.5 apiece.
Names like senior Cyris McDougle and juniors Jayirus Dunson and Isaiah Hullum also turned in productive reps as part of the Eagles’ assembly line up front, with the defense exiting two of the toughest matchups on its schedule having allowed 26 points per game — notable, considering those two offenses averaged a combined 38.2 points per game last season. Within that framework, Cedar Hill and Dickinson managed just 2.3 yards per carry in addition to an average of six sacks allowed.
Dual-threat quarterbacks Kaidon Salter (Cedar Hill) and Mike Welch (Dickinson) both struggled to materialize any sort of threat on the ground, with the Eagles limiting Salter to 16 yards on 12 rushes and Welch — an all-state pick last year — to a staggering minus-9 yards on 14 attempts.
It’s a process that has rinsed and repeated itself for years. The Eagles’ defensive line has produced three all-district Defensive Player of the Year recipients in the last four seasons (Levi Onwuzurike in 2015, Cole Maxwell in 2016 and Jayden Jernigan in 2018) and has had 21 different players named to the all-district first or second team since 2010 — 12 of whom received that honor at least twice.
Big picture, Gambill still sees room for improvement on defense, namely eliminating big plays, but the coach isn’t surprised by the initial success of his team’s defensive front. Considering how seamlessly the Eagles have reloaded within that unit over the years, how could he be?