The Free State High football team’s five starting linebackers didn’t ask for this kind of responsibility, but they gladly took it on, embraced it and owned it.
The linebacking corps has more experience than any other unit for the Firebirds (7-1, ranked No. 2 in Class 6A by Kpreps.com), so senior inside linebacker Keith Loneker said they want to carry the defense, and they don’t mind having the pressure to perform.
“If we’re not doing our job,” Loneker said, “our defense isn’t gonna be doing too well.”
Between seniors Loneker, Blake Winslow, Stan Skwarlo and Lucas Werner and junior Carson Bowen, the starting five have the skills and in-game instincts to read opposing offenses quickly and get to the right spots on time, regardless of their opponent’s play call.
Said Free State coach Bob Lisher: “We want them to make a lot of plays, obviously.”
Werner leads the team, with 41 solo tackles and 63 total. Winslow has a team-best 12 tackles for loss. Skwarlo and Winslow have forced two fumbles apiece, while Loneker and Werner each have two fumble recoveries. Plus, Free State’s four defensive touchdowns this season all have come from a linebacker: Loneker, Winslow, Bowen and back-up Justin Narcomey all have one.
Much of their success, Lisher pointed out, is the result of FSHS linemen such as Zach Bickling, Josiah LeBrun, Khadre Lane and Shane Hofer getting double-teamed.
Loneker and Winslow agreed the three linemen up front and the three in the secondary — Joe Dineen, Bryce Torneden and Joel Spain — have as much to do with Free State allowing just 15.4 points a game as the linebackers. A senior, Winslow said the linemen allow the unit behind them to run free and make game-changing plays.
“Linebackers have the reputation of being real physical,” Winslow said, “and we’re all just right there in the middle of the defense. We’re responsible for not only stopping the run, but we have to drop back in coverage a lot and make plays on the run and pass.”
Skwarlo and Bowen play on the outside, and Lisher said it is their duty to take on every play an opponent runs and turn it back inside, toward inside ’backers Loneker, Winslow and Werner. Skwarlo and Bowen, the coach added, control the outside, make tackles out wide and can both pressure and recover.
The five work so well together it is hard to tell only Skwarlo, Loneker and Winslow entered the season as returning starters. Loneker said Werner and Bowen transitioned quickly, in large part due to the game reps they earned in 2012.
“They picked it up running,” Winslow said of their increased roles, “and haven’t slowed us down at all.”
Werner’s attention to detail, Loneker added, is just one of his best qualities.
“He’s a tough guy,” Loneker said. “He’s little (5-foot-11, 160). He’s not as big as us but he makes tackles. He’s never afraid to put his nose in there.”
All five play with that style, and Winslow said the most challenging part of the position is taking one kind of hit or another every time the ball is snapped — “Most of the time, by guys that are bigger than us,” the senior added. “Sometimes it’s two guys and you never know where they’re coming from.”
The linebackers, same as the rest of their teammates, are fired up for Friday’s City Showdown against Lawrence (3-5) at FSHS.
The Lions’ 229.3 rushing yards a game are second in the Sunflower League, behind only Shawnee Mission East (267.5). Loneker said the Firebirds’ linebackers wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s on us (the linebackers) how good the defense plays,” Loneker said of facing Lawrence’s running attack. “Most of their yards will be solely on how we play. I like having that.”