New Prairie's defense looked like a veteran bunch last week, allowing La Porte's offense across the 50-yard-line just once in the first three quarters of a 48-14 victory.
However, that's far from the case.
The Cougars returned just two starters from last year's team — a linebacker and safety — and replaced the other nine this offseason. While it typically takes time for a football program to get that amount of players assimilated to the faster-paced varsity game, New Prairie is a few steps ahead.
The team traveled a half-hour up Highway 20 to Michigan City in the summer to practice with and scrimmage a Wolves team that possesses one of Indiana's quickest, most athletic offenses. Throwing an inexperienced Cougars' defense in with an offense as explosive as Michigan City's helped New Prairie's new faces mature exponentially faster.
"With our guys scrimmaging (Michigan City), it made our guys play at a faster pace," said New Prairie defensive coordinator Julio Cisneros. "You've got to keep up with them. Getting the kids lined up correctly on defense was the biggest challenge for us. The biggest thing was to get our guys to realize they had to line up quicker, because (Michigan City) is going to be fast."
When playing in 4A, there's not much of a chance New Prairie will face an offense as difficult to stop as Michigan City's. Cisneros stressed that while having his kids put in work all summer long against one of the state's premier teams is difficult, it's extremely beneficial in the long run.
"We love scrimmaging Michigan City because they bring that fast, up-tempo pace that makes us work harder," Cisneros said. "It makes things much easier when we face slower teams throughout the season."
The fundamentals, like knowing where to be before the ball is snapped, are something Cisneros and his assistants can't stress enough when talking about the keys to a successful New Prairie defense. It's all about lining up correctly, doing your job and executing the gameplan.
"We don't want to see kids make highlight-reel plays," said New Prairie defensive line coach Bobby Whitenack. "We want to see our kids do their job correctly. You can lay down a big hit in a game, but that doesn't mean you executed it correctly. If you do your job the right way and the guy around you does his job the right way, that'll help us in the long run."
This accountability the Cougars' success is so predicated on is seen every day in practice, film sessions and games; and the players aren't scared to take measures into their own hands to ensure they all work as one.
This was especially evident in a practice the week of New Prairie's game against La Porte this year. The Cougars were practicing a play the Slicers ran on offense where a receiver crashes in to blindside block an outside linebacker to open up an outside run.
New Prairie's veteran outside linebacker saw the play coming in practice that day, made a beeline for the running back, and before he knew it, was pegged to the ground by the wide receiver. He got up and furiously cussed out his cornerback for not telling him what was coming.
Typically, coaches aren't too fond of their players calling out one another; but not Cisneros.
"If I don't have to coach you because you know you did something wrong, or somebody else did something wrong and you took care of it, I love that," Cisneros said. "Because I can spend more time over here with this guy who's making another mistake and correct him."
The leadership and accountability New Prairie's defense relies on begins and ends with its middle linebackers, who Cisneros wants as one of the smartest people on the team. Previous signal-callers for his defense have been honor roll students, engineers and other bright individuals.
And with a defense as inexperienced as the Cougars' is this year, that becomes all the more crucial. But countless summer reps opposing a Michigan City offense kickstarted New Prairie's maturity defensively, putting them way ahead of where some expected them to be in just the second week of the season.