Tom Keegan: Big hitter David Johnson and rest of Firebirds defense a big hit

Free State junior linebacker David Johnson chases after Derby running back Brody Kooser (1) during the Class 6A state semifinals on Friday at Panther Stadium.

The one-and-done nature of the playoffs raises the stakes for all high school football players.

Then again, for Free State High, that’s nothing new. Preserving an undefeated record already has added a little heat to the equation.

“I’d say there’s a little bit of pressure, but it’s pressure we kind of like nowadays,” senior linebacker David Johnson said. “We kind of like the target it puts on our back. You’re getting everybody’s best shot. We’re in the playoffs now so you’re going to get that anyway.”

Whatever Johnson’s motivation, it’s working very well. Despite missing a game-and-a-half with an injury, Johnson has amassed 39 solo tackles and 30 assists. If tackles were tracked in decibels, Johnson just might lead the nation.

“He’s good and he’s physical and he has no fear,” Free State High coach Bob Lisher said. “He’s all over the place and he fills very well, but all four of our linebackers are pretty good, physically and athletically. We’re not hurting in that department at all.”

The linebackers, defensive linemen and defensive backs have been putting a hurt on ballcarriers and receivers all year, leading Free State to an 8-0 record and holding teams to 12.9 points per game.

“David takes care of things up front, getting people in the right spots,” Lisher said. “He has to call the offensive formation, the strength (which side the tight end is on). A lot of our blitz packages are based off that.”

The years have taught Lisher that less is more.

“We have reduced the communication on both sides of the ball,” Lisher said. “We’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible so our guys can just play and not think. That’s kind of our philosophy. If they’re thinking, they’re not playing as fast as they need to play, so we’ve tried to reduce that over the years.”

Johnson sent much of the credit for the 3-4-4 defense’s outstanding play to defensive coordinator Mike Gillman and to the big bodies up front, seniors Spencer Roe and Nathan Spain and sophomores Lovette Epelle and part-time starter/valuable reserve Turner Corcoran, and also praised the work of fellow linebackers Gage Foster, Bo Miller and Jalen Nash.

“And our secondary’s getting a lot better,” Johnson said. “I think we can finally play man coverage.”

Seniors Kwinton Lassiter, a transfer from Arizona, and Gabe del Valle man the corners. Sophomore Malik Berry and junior Keenan Garber play safety.

As would any good leader, Johnson called attention to everyone’s contributions but his own.