McCook All-State linebacker DJ Gross, a headhunter on defense.
*(photo courtesy of Jeff Gross, McCook high school)
Need a bodyguard? I have seven gentlemen who might just fit the bill of this Premier Defenders list for 2018. Key word for this group is OUCH!
If someone sent me out to get food for this septet, I’d head straight to the hardware store and buy a nail keg full of 10 penny nails. I have heard at most of these guys eat a handful of these for breakfast every morning.
Honestly, this is one heck of a group of defenders for a state the size of Nebraska. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if every single one earned a Division One scholarship.
*Nick Henrich - Omaha Burke - 6-4, 210, Senior (#42) Inside Linebacker
I have not seen a high school linebacker in this state in at least 10 years that can match Nick Henrich. The last one didn’t even play prep football….he was Lavonte David of the Huskers. And you know what? I’m guessing around 21 Division One schools agree with me on that assessment.
Did anyone ever block number 42 last season? Henrich made more visits to the opposing backfield than their offensive coordinator. Good lord, Henrich is so quick off the ball he sometimes gets to the QB before he can hand the ball off, and if he can it doesn’t matter who the running back is, down he goes. And its happened to Milton Sargbah, Zander Gray, Cade Elwood, and the list goes on.
Look, Nick Henrich can cover a hundred meters in:11.2 and 400 in :51.1. And lateral movement! I’ve have not seen anyone match Henrich’s sideline to sideline movement in this state for years and I’ve been watching for 50 of them. And have you noticed? It’s as if Nick Henrich knows the other team’s play before it has a chance to develop.
Last season the future college All-American made 120 tackles, 65 of which were solos, had 11 sacks and 32 tackles for losses. Seemed like 132 for losses. Just so lightning quick off the snap of the football. “Blink and you miss him”, said the right offensive tackle.
If you know football, and I don’t care whether you are a D1 head coach or what, if you watch this young man live, you will leave shaking your head and dream about his plays all night.
I could go on all day about Nick Henrich, but there just aren’t enough high praise words to describe this young man.
Incredible. Absolutely Incredible.
*Chris Hickman -Omaha Burke - 6-6, 210, Senior (#81) Defensive End/Tight End
Pick your poison here. Hickman is being sought after for his defensive skills, but he caught 24 passes for 575 yards and 8 TDs a year ago on the offensive side for Burke as well. That’s 24 yards a reception. Pretty salty for his “other gig” on the football field.
Hickman made 46 stops on defense a year ago, certainly not Nick Henrich numbers, but there are stats that just do not show up in the box score. Chris has an uncanny knack of getting open as a receiver on offense, and his calling card on defense is constantly being disruptive. In common layman's terms….Hickman is a real pain in the rear every play.
One thing Hickman uses to his advantage is that lanky 6-6 frame. Batting down passes, throwing blockers aside, and taking ball carriers down with one of his long arms are just a few of his favorite pastimes on the gridiron. And personally, I think this guy has just scratched the surface of his projected talent.
Division One football schools have certainly noticed Mr. Hickman. Many of those institutions that offered Henrich have extended the same deal to Chris. Thirteen D1 offers laying out there as of right now for the Bulldog senior, who I think will really have a huge season in 2018.
They use the term “dual-threat” in relation to quarterbacks, but Chris Hickman, highly skilled on both sides of the ball, can certainly be put in that category.
*Luke Sims - Creighton Prep - 5-11, 240, Senior (#5) LB/RB/FB
Talk about a “dual-threat” player, Luke Sims would be that man. On offense, when Creighton Prep needed yards and first downs, Coach Tim Johnk leaned on #5. The heartbreaking semifinal loss in Kearney was a perfect illustration of just that.
Sims was nearly unstoppable that night, literally dragging tacklers, big lineman, for huge yards after contact to the tune of 156 yards on 28 carries. And when Luke wasn’t toting the pigskin, he was burying a defender with a crunching block.
There isn’t a coach in the state that doesn’t dream about have a “Luke Sims” on his football team. Listed as a FB on offense, the 240 pound Sims literally runs more like an I-Back in space. Against Omaha Westside, the Prep standout exploded through an opening at the line of scrimmage and was running away from the Warrior defense at the end of a sparkling 44 yard TD gallop.
Sims ended 2017 with 1,005 yards and 18 touchdowns and a fat 6.8 yards a pop. He also caught four passes out of that Junior Jay backfield, one going for a timely 16 yard TD reception in the Millard North game.
And by the way, Sims, without a doubt has the best stiff arm in the state. If there is a defender in hot pursuit that begins to pull even with him, Luke simply drills them into the turf with his right arm.
Okay, Sims was a first team All-Metro and 2nd team All-Nebraska selection at defensive tackle in 2017. You just will not see a ton of defensive film on Luke Sims, but I saw what he did in Kearney, not once, but twice. Pretty impressive and besides, how many Defensive tackles have you seen recently that gained a 1000 yards on offense?
So, why did I include Luke Sims on this list of Premier defenders instead of putting him with the Premier running backs? Let’s put it this way. Who says he can’t be on both lists?
*Garrett Nelson - Scottsbluff - 6-3, 235, Senior (#23) DE/TE
Don’t let Nelson’s 2017 stat line fool you. Garrett, who committed to Nebraska the summer before his junior season, was coming off a sophomore campaign that saw the monster defensive end make 67 tackles, 42 of which were solos. Nelson also had 8 tackles for losses in that mix, 5 of which were QB sacks.
Last season, his tackle stats went down to 44 total stops. Relaxing after he knew a Husker scholarship was in his hip pocket? Nah, and here’s why.
First of all, Nelson snuck up on everybody in his 2016 sophomore season. Last year he was double teamed, sometimes triple teamed but Garrett still did things that would not show up on the stat sheet. Sure, there were 11 tackles behind the scrimmage line and 7 QB sacks, but what about the blocks he fought off to make those tackles? And, the spin moves, among other acrobatic motions he made just to get to the ball carrier?
Garrett Nelson may have had more tackles in 2016 than he did a year ago, but the kid added more brute strength and gave more unfriendly grizzly bear hugs to opposing ball carriers than a World Wrestling Federation star in his heyday.
Number 23 not only added more muscle to that already impressive 235 pound frame, but it appeared to me Garrett was much quicker and faster in the open field in 2017. And the ability to separate the football from the ball carrier...wow.
I also saw Nelson flash his open field speed on a slick 35 yard gain against GINW last year in Grand Island and it will only get better in this Fall.
Here’s another kid that will have a huge season in 2018. There were a bunch of things the former Husker football regime did wrong, but offering Garrett Nelson was an Einstein move for certain.
*D J Gross - McCook - 6-2, 215, Senior (#88) MLB/TE
Boy is it fun to watch this youngster play the game of football from his inside linebacker position. Passion, baby. Pure passion. How could the son of McCook head coach Jeff Gross and student of Bison Asst. Russ Schlager, not be a Division One player.
DJ Gross committed to South Dakota University back in January and will be a big contributor up there. The 215 pound Gross already has 223 tackles in two seasons for McCook plus 16 tackles behind the scrimmage line.
The kid is a true headhunter from his linebacker slot and gets to the ball carrier in record time. And when Gross gets to that man with the football, it’s pure form tackling and every single one ‘em hurts like the dickens.
All three of Russ Schlager’s boys were terrific defensive players, all Division One, and DJ Gross is right out of that mold. The kid just plays with such enthusiasm and leadership for McCook and I feel sorry for any opponent on the Bison schedule in 2018 who meets Mr. Gross head on.
If you are any kind of a true high school football fan from Central Nebraska, you’d better circle Friday, September 7th on your calendar. The Bison visit York that night. Need I say more?
DJ Gross is also a great offensive football player from his TE position. Very good technique as a blocker with the ability to get open on a pass route. And you can bet the farm that the man will catch the pass when junior QB Cameryn Berry lets it fly.
An easy, no brainer choice for All-State Class B linebacker, Gross may push for Super State honors this Fall. Hard to imagine DJ Gross could get any better, but just watch and observe in 2018.
*Caden Johnson - Wahoo Neumann - 6-3, 241, Senior (#53) DE/OT
Talk about an imposing, picture perfect football frame. Wow! It looks like the long, lean Johnson has about 1% body fat and the rest solid muscle. If some artist wanted to paint the picture of what a perfect football body would look like, Caden Johnson could fill the bill.
Last season Bishop Neumann was coming off a C-1 title game appearance in 2016 and came into 2017 with heavy, heavy graduation losses. The Cavaliers went 4-5 and failed to make the playoffs last year, but Caden Johnson still had a monster season.
Johnson made 75 stops for Neumann in 2017 and that included 12.5 tackles for losses. I saw this guy play in the 2017 season opener at Norfolk Catholic and just shook my head. So talented for a junior and simply a huge, menacing force on defense. He nearly beheaded the great Dylan Kautz on two separate occasions. I wondered if Dylan wouldn’t just duck down the next go-around with Johnson that night.
Caden Johnson has astounding leg strength, and oh how I love the way this young man hand fights. Just throws defenders out of the way like rag dolls. And talk about playing with a flare and passion for the game. Mirror image of McCook’s DJ Gross in that department.
If you want a real kick, watch Caden operate in the offensive line from his tackle position. On many occasions, Johnson will just take two defenders and steam roll ‘em down the field. Kind of reminds me of some of the Looney Toons I used watch as kid when a steam roller would run over and flatten out a cartoon character into a paper thin form….ala Road Runner.
Johnson already has offers from Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, South Dakota, Stephen F. Austin, and Air Force Academy.
*Ethan Piper - Norfolk Catholic - 6-4, 275, Senior (#71) DT/OT
Last year on opening night, I was allowed to be in the Norfolk Catholic locker room to witness a legendary Coach Jeff Bellar pre-game speech. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. Anyway, Ethan Piper was facing me about two feet away in a lineman’s meeting before the speech. I told him I would give anything just to suit up and play one more time. Piper just looked down about a foot an a half and glared at me.
I wonder what he was thinking at that moment? Never mind, don’t want to know…... and maybe I wouldn’t want to suit up one more time after all.
Anyway, Piper has grown into a bonafide Division One recruit. He had offers from South Dakota State, Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska. Didn’t take Ethan long to hard commit to the Huskers…...on March 5th to be exact.
I wondered how fast Ethan Piper actually was considering his size. Well, I found out when he ran down Aquinas back Matthew Nadrchal from behind, saving a touchdown. And Piper had to come from the opposite side of the field to do it.
In the Boone Central/NG game, I saw EthanPiper bolt threw a rock solid Cardinal offensive line and throw All-State Dylan Gentrup down with one arm so violently, the Boone Central QB hit the turf 5 yards back and coughed up the football.
Just a man among boys on defense with his remarkable strength, Ethan Piper is equally impressive on the offensive side of Catholic’s high octane machine. How many times has # 71 sprung Dylan Kautz for a long touchdown run? And heaven forbid number 71 is pulling on a sweep play. Piper just dearly loves to roll defenders then continue on his merry way looking for another body to destroy.
I could go on all day about this lad. He bats down passes, jerks the pigskin out of the ball carrier’s hands, and just simply strikes genuine fear into players he faces.
I often wondered how Ethan’s Mom planned his meals? Maybe just order half of beef at the beginning of the week for starters? All kidding aside, Scott Frost and crew nabbed a blue chipper here.