PREP FOOTBALL: John Hardin may have its best group of linebackers (11/22)

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By Chuck Jones

The John Hardin program has churned out a number of quality linebackers. But Linebacker High has never had a collective unit like it does this season.

This group has everything a coaching staff wants. It has size, speed and a nose for the ball, delivering a big hit once one of them gets there.

“It may overall be the best we’ve had,” John Hardin coach Mark Brown said. “They’re playing as good right now as they have all year. We’ve got a solid group. We have a solid top five.”

The Bulldogs have two run-stuffers in the middle in senior Domonick Brown and Chris Smith. Brown, the reigning Area Defensive Player of the Year, is a 6-foot, 240-pound ferocious tackler who makes plays over the entire field, while Chris Smith, a 5-9, 230-pound junior, has developed into a solid player in the shadow of Brown.

“Chris and I have a great connection,” Domonick Brown said. “We know how to fill a gap and to take the right angle to make a play. We can both get to the ball. He knows I have his back and it’s the same way with him.”

On the outside, Garrett Ray, a 5-6, 172-pound senior, is a non-stop whirlwind of energy on the field, creating havoc in the backfield. Jalen Fleming, a 5-9, 191-pound senior, is known for delivering big hits, and like Ray, produces headaches for opposing quarterbacks. Not to mention, senior Wade Holtsclaw, the Area Defensive Sophomore of the Year, can fill in at either outside spot to give someone a break.

“In my opinion, this is best linebacking crew we’ve ever had,” Ray said. “We’ve had a lot of great linebackers in the past, but not like this. We can bring pressure with me or Jalen. And Domonick and Chris are beasts in the middle. It makes us much more dangerous.”

The John Hardin defense has the attention of Bowling Green coach Kevin Wallace, who guides his 13-0 Purples against the Bulldogs at 7:30 Friday night in the Class 5-A semifinals.

“That where there real strength is,” Wallace said. “Inside they have the big tackle (Matt Elam) and a great linebacker (Brown). We had a player here by the name of Michael Bailey. He wasn’t the biggest player but he disrupted people and made big plays.

“No. 7 (Ray) is like that for them,” he added. “That’s the biggest compliment I can give a player. He’s absolutely a disruptive force. He has no regard for his body.”

Mark Brown said he has been impressed with the unit, especially how they’ve played during the playoffs.

“Domonick and Chris are the two most dominant middle linebackers we’ve had,” he said. “That’s what I like about them. They’re playing some of their best ball now. They’re peaking at the right time.

“Domonick has so much experience and runs well,” he added. “He doesn’t get enough credit for how he drops into pass coverage. Chris is just a pure hitter. He’s gotten a lot better getting off blocks and getting to the ball. Garrett’s the one guy who has played extremely well from Day 1. He’s been Mr. Consistency. Jalen has been playing with more confidence and doing a great job.”

Fleming started the season at cornerback but shifted back to outside linebacker five games into the season. With Holtsclaw becoming so valuable on offense, the coaching staff wanted to get him off the field. Fleming had previous experience, starting there the two previous years.

“I think I can play anywhere they put me,” Fleming said. “If they want me to play center, I’ll play center. I just want to help the team win. I’ve been playing linebacker for a long time, so I feel much more comfortable there. I can be more aggressive there than cornerback.”

Being aggressive isn’t a problem for this group, which has a knack for forcing turnovers. Fleming has recovered three fumbles to go along with one interception, while Brown has two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Ray and Smith each have a fumble recovery and an interception. Smith returned his interception for a touchdown against West Jessamine.

“I think we don’t care about stats,” Domonick Brown said. “We don’t care who gets credit or who has the most tackles. We just get to the ball and wrap up to make a play. We hustle every play. We don’t take a play off. I think the proof is how we can. We feel like we have to prove ourselves every play.”

What they’ve proved is they are the program’s best set of linebackers.

Chuck Jonescan be reached at (270) 505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.