PREP FOOTBALL: John Hardin's secondary has turned questions into answers (11/22)

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By Chuck Jones

The big question mark surrounding the John Hardin defense entering the season wasn’t a big mystery. With its formidable front four returning and one of the top linebackers in the area, the secondary was considered the weak link.

The coaching staff realized it. The defensive backs even understood why there was a certain amount of skepticism about the secondary.

“At the beginning of the season, the biggest question was from our secondary,” John Hardin senior Patrick Anderson said. “We had everybody back on the defensive line and we had Chris (Smith) back at linebacker. I think some people doubted our secondary. We’ve really improved a lot and now we’re helping the defense out.”

Those questions surrounding the secondary have been answered — emphatically — through the course of the season. What was considered a weakness at the start of the season has turned into a strength.

“We’ve progressed game-by-game,” John Hardin senior Dimitri Cooper said. “We’ve gotten better, but we still have a long way to go to achieve greatness. Coach (Marcus) Hyche has high expectations for us and we try to achieve those expectations.”

The secondary has surpassed the expectations of the coaching staff, developing into a solid unit at the back end of the defense. John Hardin has given up seven passing touchdowns, but only two in the last eight games.

The Bulldogs are limiting opponents to only 101.5 yards a game through the air. They’ve held six opponents to less than 100 yards and only one opponent – Fort Thomas Highlands — passed for more than 200 yards against them.

“They’ve improved a lot,” John Hardin coach Chad Lewis said. “Highlands picked us apart at times, but Highlands picks a lot of teams apart. It showed us our weaknesses and where we had some holes. They’ve worked to get better and we’ve tightened up our defense.”

Junior cornerback C.J. Hill credits the seniors for the improved play. In the last seven games, only two teams – North Hardin and Shelby County – threw for more than 100 yards against the Bulldogs.

“It’s the leadership of our seniors,” Hill said. “They get us focused every week. They’re determined and focused and that rubs off on the rest of the team. It’s about going out and doing what we need to do to win.”

It starts with Anderson, who Lewis calls the cornerstone of the secondary. After starting his sophomore season, Anderson didn’t play defense last season except for certain situations since he was the starting quarterback.

This season, Lewis knew Anderson needed to play on both sides of the ball. His impact was felt immediately as he intercepted three passes in the season opener. Anderson has six career interceptions, one shy of Jeff Smothers’ career record.

“Ask anybody, there’s no better place to be than defense,” Anderson said. “It’s exciting to be back on the defensive side of the ball. I like hitting people and making plays on that side of the ball.”

Lewis compares Hill favorably to former Bulldog Orlando Mouncil, who was an All-Area defensive back despite his lack of height. Hill is only 5-foot-8, but seems to play much bigger.

Teams have shied away from Anderson’s side, leaving Hill, a first-year starter, to get picked on. But he has held his own and become a shutdown corner opposite Anderson. Hill has three interceptions in the last four games.

“I noticed teams picking on me,” Hill said. “Pat’s the best on the team, so teams didn’t want to go to his side. Pat would say, ‘Watch, they’re going to throw to your side.’ I’ve learned a lot and I just try to get better every game.”

With two solid cornerbacks in place, Lewis made a change after the second game of the season to his safeties. Cooper started at free safety last season, but Lewis moved him to strong safety at the start of the year. But after sophomore Thomas Lloyd emerged as a viable option at strong safety, which is like a linebacker in John Hardin’s scheme, Cooper shifted back to his natural position.

“Thomas came in against DeSales and did such a good job, we felt like it made the team better at that time to make the switch,” Lewis said. “Thomas is very aggressive and seems to be in the right place at the right time. He’s very heady for a sophomore. Dimitri’s biggest asset is he’s so long. He covers a lot of ground quickly.”

The move has paid off tremendously. Lloyd is seventh on the team in tackles and has two interceptions, while Cooper has one of John Hardin’s 13 picks. Last year, the Bulldogs had 16 interceptions.

“I get teased a lot because I’ve dropped so many interceptions,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t matter who makes the play at the end of the day as long as the play is made.”

Lewis said the one thing overlooked with the secondary is how well they come up and make plays in the running game.

“They are sure tacklers,” Lewis said. “That’s something they do very well. When teams run the ball, they will come up and finish ball carriers off. You don’t want them making a lot of tackles, but they do a good job in that regard.”

The Bulldogs host Bullitt East at 7:30 tonight in the Class 5-A, Region 2 championship. The Chargers are primarily a running team, but if they do take to the air, the rest of the defense has complete faith the secondary will do what it has done the entire season – make plays.

“They’ve gotten a lot better,” Smith said. “Coach Hyche, Coach Lewis and Coach (Jerren) Morning work with those guys every day. It takes time like any part of the defense. They have improved so much. The coaches break down things well and then they go out and execute well. People thought our secondary might not be as good, but they’ve proved a lot of people wrong.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com