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Eleven weeks ago, the John Hardin Bulldogs had a problem. Maybe not a problem, but a glaring concern.
After losing two linebackers and three defensive backs who helped the Bulldogs to a 14-1 record and the program’s first trip to a state championship game, there were plenty of holes in what was a dominating defense a season ago.
But 11 games – and 11 wins, mind you – later, John Hardin’s defense has been just as good, if not better, because of the emergence of three sophomores – linebackers Dominick Brown and Jalen Fleming and strong safety Wade Holtsclaw – as the Bulldogs roll into the second round of the Class 5-A playoffs.
“They’ve done a good job for us,” John Hardin coach Mark Brown said. “The thing about them is they’re smart football players and they’ve learned as the season has gone on. They take the right angles to get to the ball and they don’t get fooled as much. They’ve been a big surprise for us.”
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise considering success on the field is nothing new to the trio, who were eighth-graders when Bluegrass Middle School won the state championship. Maybe the amazement is how fast they’ve become contributors.
“I thought I’d be playing behind an upperclassman,” Fleming said. “I knew I had to be prepared, but I didn’t expect this. I don’t think Wade or Dominick did, either. We knew we had to be ready. We have to play smart defense and play our responsibilities. When we make a mistake, we have to keep our head up. We want to work to make the team better as a whole.”
Defensive coordinator Chad Lewis and Mark Brown might sometimes lose sight that Dominick Brown, Fleming and Holtsclaw are still in the learning stage because they often display the characteristics of veterans.
“You have to be responsible and you have to play with courage,” Holtsclaw said. “We’re determined to win. We never settle for anything. We want to help this team get back to State.”
Holtsclaw said the biggest challenge was learning the complicated defensive package which the Bulldogs use. In John Hardin’s scheme, the strong safety is a hybrid who not only has pass coverage responsibilities, but often is like another linebacker and must be able to stop the run.
“I’m usually an offensive player, so it was tough learning the defense,” Holtsclaw said. “It was a lot different.”
Another difficult task for the sophomores was “learning how to learn.” Unlike middle school, freshman or junior varsity football, preparation is the key for high school teams. There are scouting reports to go over and coaches expect players to take what’s in those reports to the practice field.
“It’s incredible,” Dominick Brown said. “I have improved a lot because of all the work the coaches have put into me. But you have to do a lot of work on your own. You have to go over your scouting reports and you have to what they’re going to do. It’s a lot more work than you realize. You have to be ready to step up and play your role.”
The 5-foot-8, 156-pound Holtsclaw is tied for second on the team in tackles with 78, including 56 solo stops. He has one sack and 11 tackles for a loss. Holtsclaw also intercepted his first varsity pass against Bullitt Central.
“He’s learned the position quicker than we anticipated,” Mark Brown said. “He’s a competitor. You don’t have to tell him many times what to do. You tell him something and he’s going to do it the right way. And he just has a nose for the ball.”
The 5-7, 146-pound Fleming stepped in at outside linebacker, a position played by past standouts Alphonso Kahn, D.J. Marcum and Matt Voss. He has made 60 tackles, including 33 solo stops. Fleming has eight tackles for a loss and he had his first varsity interception against Jeffersontown last week.
“He loves to play the game,” Mark Brown said. “He’s a competitor. He wants to do well. He has a lot of energy and we just need to channel that energy in a positive way.”
The 6-0, 213-pound Brown breaks the mold of a typical John Hardin linebacker, which is usually 5-8, according to Mark Brown. With senior Damien Biggs moving to middle linebacker, Dominick Brown filled the void at Biggs’ spot.
“At the beginning, he would think and watch too much instead of reacting,” Mark Brown said. “He would step the wrong way instead of reading his keys. He’s gotten a lot better at that and that’s made him so much better.”
Dominick Brown lost his starting spot after a few games, but regained it by continuing the work hard. He has 60 tackles, including 35 solo stops. He has three tackles for a loss and one sack. Dominick Brown said being taken out of the starting lineup made him mature as a player.
“That made me grow up a lot,” Dominick Brown said. “It made me more focused and it made me play more focused. I know it sounds crazy, but the coaches made me a better football player by sitting me out. It’s made me work 10 times harder, because now I want to keep the spot.”
The three have played together since the sixth grade and they agree it helped they were playing with familiar faces. The players could relate to one another in good times and during tough times.
“It feels like there’s always a bunch of eyes watching me,” Fleming said. “It was nerve racking at first. You just want to do the right things.”
The tough times, though, don’t come around as often. As is the case for most first-year starters, the game has doesn’t seem to move so fast.
“I think it has slowed down,” Dominick Brown said. “It was so quick and so fast at first. It got better with each game where it wasn’t moving as fast. But I think I understood my role better and what I was supposed to do.”
Mark Brown said he can’t remember three sophomores stepping in and having this type of impact on one of his teams. He admits it has helped the trio by playing alongside seniors Jeff Richard, Matt Linton, Biggs and Anthony Wright.
Dominick Brown, Fleming and Holtsclaw realize how fortunate they’ve been. Not only are they starting, but they’re doing it for one of the premier 5-A programs.
“It’s a blessing,” Dominick Brown said. “Coming out, I don’t think we knew what to expect. I think a lot of people didn’t expect our defense to be this good because of how young we are. I think we’re proving a lot of people wrong.”
Where John Hardin once had a potential problem, it now has an asset.
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759