At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, current Northwest High School senior Caleb Gills was an undersized—but incredibly effective—defensive lineman for the two-time defending Class 4A state champion Jaguars football team the past two years.
“We used (Gills) as a speed guy, a guy who could out-quick the bigger guys,” Mike Neubeiser said. “He was really good at movement, as far as shooting the gaps. And he was always good with good leverage and staying underneath (the bigger guys).”
This year, however, Gills’ combination of strength and speed is being utilized to fill a need at linebacker. The position, which requires a thorough understanding of the game and the ability to read and respond to plays within a split-second, lends itself to being a team leader. And Neubeiser said the third-year starter’s leadership, in addition to his field coverage and playmaking abilities, has been integral as the young Jaguars continue to search for their identity early this fall.
“He is all over the field, he runs around a lot,” Neubeiser said. “He refuses to be blocked and is making a lot of tackles. He’s all over the place. He’s one of those guys who, offensively, (teams) have to look out for him at all times. … His leadership has been really important, too. He’s been talking to the young guys that have not been in his shoes and he’s good about trying to coach them up, try to help them eliminate mistakes—coach them mentally, things that a leader would do.”
On Friday, Northwest fell, 14-7, to crosstown rival Seneca Valley in the Battle of Germantown. Annually, the winner of the regular-season game between these two programs gets to house the King’s Trophy until the following year’s rematch.
The Jaguars have held it the past two years after six consecutive Seneca Valley wins. The loss left Northwest, which graduated the majority of its state championship squad, with some questions to answer. But it is still very early in the season and Gills said he is confident the Jaguars can remain a legitimate postseason contender. Though, he said, it’s important the team not look too far ahead but rather focus on each week as it comes.
Defense is always important, but Neubeiser said it could play an even bigger role in whatever success Northwest experiences this fall. Although Northwest’s offense is led by a third-year starting quarterback—senior Mark Pierce—virtually all of the skill positions around him are filled by first-year varsity starters. While those players have tremendous upside, Neubeiser admitted the Jaguars are going through some growing pains early.
Northwest committed nine penalties for 75 yards Friday, and Seneca Valley’s first score was off a 65-yard fumble return in the first quarter. Pierce did complete 15 of 22 pass attempts for 145 yards Friday but threw two interceptions and no touchdowns; he scored Northwest’s touchdown on a 7-yard run in the second quarter. Despite this, Northwest struggled to make big plays and convert on chances.
“Right now it’s a lot of little mistakes. We’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing right now,” Neubeiser said. “Receivers are not running the routes they’re supposed to run, and it’s difficult for a (quarterback) if a guy is supposed to be in a spot and he’s not. … We didn’t capitalize when we were down in the red zone. And Seneca did a good job, defensively, buckling down when we were in the red zone. When their backs were against the wall, they made good defensive plays.”
Northwest allowed opponents to score less than two touchdowns, on average, per game a year ago, and it will be important for the Jaguars’ defense to put up similar or better numbers this season if the offense isn’t going to score points at the same rate—Northwest averaged 43 points per game in 2014. Defense also plays a major role in time management and field position, which will only help Northwest’s inexperienced offense.
“The point of the defense is to get the ball back in the hands of the offense,” Gills said. “The more time (the offense) has time to run plays, the better.”
Northwest will look to bounce back from Friday’s disappointing loss when it travels to Blair Friday evening. The Blazers (2-0) are coming off their first-ever postseason appearance in 2014.
“We were not thrilled (with Friday’s loss), you never want to lose to your rival,” Gills said. “But it’s good that it happened early in the season so we can learn from it. We have a lot of young guys. Them losing, was an eye-opening experience. You’ve got to put the work in during practice, and it will translate (to the games).”