Stephenville head football coach Joseph Gillespie always says games are won and lost in the trenches.
That kind of pressure is just fine with members of the Yellow Jackets’ defensive line, as long the “Wardogs” have each other to lean on.
“We’re best friends. We do everything together. If any of us have questions about anything in practice or in a game, we help each other,” says T.R. Varnado, a senior and four-year letterman who was a first-team all-district honoree each of the last two seasons.
Varnado started at nose tackle for the Jackets each of the last two seasons but has moved to defensive end in the 3-4 alignment this year. Sophomore Russell Cole, who saw spot action as a freshman during the playoffs last season, has taken over at nose while varsity veteran Javier Perez, another first-team all-district pick in 2008, is back at the other end.
Among other things, the D-linemen say they often go to the bowling alley or movies, or just get together to compete at John Madden Football. One thing’s for sure, even at idle gatherings, each is very competitive.
“Me,” Perez quickly says when asked who is the best at Madden.
“No, it’s me,” counters Varnado.
“I’m the best,” responds backup Mark Mallory. “You haven’t even played on (X-Box) 360.”
The D-linemen are also competitive when it comes to their stats on the field.
“Who’s the best in real football?” asks Varnado, whose name has been called over the Tarleton Memorial Stadium public adress system for making plays so many times the last few years that the announcer often calls him by his first name.
“I am, I lead in sacks,” Perez answers pointedly.
“Do you?” Varnado asks.
“I don’t think so. I think he better go check on that,” he says to Cole.
It’s all in fun spirit. Varnado and Perez care very little about who makes the plays, as long as they get made.
Cole, meanwhile, is simply learning on the run.
“It’s just been a great experience for me. I’m living the dream right now,” says Cole. “I’ve learned a lot from (Varnado and Perez).”
Having Cole learn the ropes from Varnado and Perez is exactly the way Stephenville defensive line coach Kreg Kimple planned for things to go.
“I told T.R. and Javier at the start of the year they would have to be leaders not only on the defensive line but for the whole defense,” Kimple says. “They’ve done a great job of that. I know they have helped Russell out a lot.”
Kimple says it’s the closeness of the group that has them playing so well.
“They play well together because they’re a close group,” he said. “They have each other’s backs and that’s something you have to have to be successful.”
And the Jackets have been successful, especially on defense. Stephenville (6-2, 4-0) has had multiple sacks and tackles for loss in each of their last six games - all Yellow Jacket wins. During that span, they have allowed just 6.7 points and 199.2 yards per game. For the season, they are surrendering 13.1 points and 259.1 yards per night.
The defensive line has been critical to those impressive stats, enough so that Kimple believes this group is as good as last year’s line that featured Varnado, Perez and Josh Emmons.
“We lost a guy that was on everybody’s all-state team (in Emmons) and it’s hard to replace a player like that,” Kimple says. “But T.R. has made the transition to end even more smoothly than we ever could have hoped for and Russell has done a great job at nose. He’s a player I’ve looked at ever since he was in junior high as a guy I thought could help us a lot. It’s rare for us to have a sophomore starting on the D-line, but Russell’s done a great job.”
With the line and the rest of the defense rounding into playoff form and the offense doing its own share of damage, the Jackets, who have already secured a trip to the playoffs for the sixth year in a row and 20th time in 21 seasons, are taking aim at an outright district championship. They will secure at least a share of the 8-4A title with a win over Arlington Seguin (3-5, 3-2) Friday.
“Winning a district championship would be big,” Varnado says. “No team I’ve played on has ever won it outright. When I was a freshman we shared it (with Everman and Aledo in 2006), but that’s it.”
Mallory isn’t a four-year letterman, but that doesn’t mean a district championship would mean any less to him.
“It would mean a lot,” Mallory said. “When you start in the seventh grade you always look forward to doing that.”
Now the defensive line, and the rest of the Jackets, are closing in on that goal. And they’re doing it together.