Last fall, it took some serious nitpicking to come up with any severe flaws in the Free State High football team’s defense.
Loaded at every position, the Firebirds led the Sunflower League in total defense during the regular season. Linemen and linebackers swarmed to the ball, and defensive backs regularly made passing an unattractive option with their coverage.
After four days of camp this week at FSHS, coach Bob Lisher knows the biggest holes in the defense could be in the secondary. Although senior free safety Joe Dineen still roams the field looking to dish out punishment, the Firebirds lost the services of recent graduates Kyle McFarland and Demarko Bobo on the corners.
“We felt very fortunate to have both of those guys,” Lisher said, “but now we’ve got to put somebody in there who can step up and do the same type of job.”
Free State held opponents to 71 passing yards a game and a 39-percent completion rate in the 2012 regular season. So far this offseason, senior Khadre Lane, juniors Joel Spain and Andrew Keating and sophomore Bryce Torneden have taken the most varsity reps at corner.
“Those positions will be scrutinized quite a bit as we go through the summer,” Lisher said, “especially this weekend at Northwest Missouri State (where the team is participating in a full-pads contact camp, through Sunday).”
Dineen, a Kansas University commit who already has two years of starting experience, said he and fellow third-year starter Stan Skwarlo, who plays a hybrid safety and linebacker position, can help bring the younger guys along. The new group, Dineen added, has a lot of potential. Lane, at 6-foot-4, is a little taller than McFarland, though not as experienced.
“Khadre’s the best athlete in the Sunflower League, maybe even Kansas,” Dineen said. “He’s gonna do great out there.”
Whether any of the corners have the speed and physicality of Bobo remains to be seen.
“I’ve never seen them really hit anybody,” Dineen said, with a grin. “So hopefully they can come through and fill that.”
Skwarlo has witnessed a lot of hustle and flying to the football out of the corners, which defensive coordinator Brett Oberzan always likes. But they’re learning as they go.
“I think with this camp this week, and going into Northwest (Missouri State),” Skwarlo said, “it’ll really teach the young guys to step up. They’ll just get better.”
Lisher emphasized the starting corner positions are far from decided and the coaches will find out in the next few months who fits best. Whoever they may be, the newest defensive backs won’t have to look too far for guidance from veterans Dineen and Skwarlo.
“A lot of help goes on in the secondary,” Lisher said, “and with those guys there it gives everybody a little more confidence.”
While the pass rush provided from defenders up front, such as lineman Fred Wyatt and linebackers Blake Winslow and Keith Loneker, can help the secondary a great deal, Dineen said no one on the FSHS defense is going to lower their expectations for the corners.
“They’ll have to be able to man guys up,” Dineen said. “They’ll be asked to do everything the cornerbacks last year did. But with us back there we’ll recognize route combos and be able to help them that way.”