The past three weeks, Liberty's defense has been a lot like the Farmers insurance commercial that seems to be dominating the airwaves these days.
Suffice to say, the Patriots “know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two.”
Facing three different styles of play — from run-heavy, to no-huddle to a balanced attack — the Patriots’ D has “seen it, covered it,” limiting the opposition to just two touchdowns and 20 points through three games.
“I think our schedule helps us see different offenses and helps put us in different situations that we have to adjust to on a weekly basis,” Nixon said. “You go from smashmouth teams to spread teams to some two-back and some pro-style stuff. So our kids get to see a lot and it puts them in different positions and they have to recognize different formations and different plays. We think that’s one of the beneficial parts of the preseason schedule we have.”
Liberty (3-0) has also learned to play well on the road. Four weeks into the season, and the Patriots have yet to host a game. That trend continues Thursday when they travel to face Clovis-Buchanan (2-1). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
“They are always very well-coached,” said Nixon of the Bears, whose only loss is to state-ranked Harbor City-Narbonne in Week 1. “They do have a little bit of smashmouth tendencies, but they also spread you out. So they’re a multiple-formation team that you definitely need to recognize and see where you’re at and what they’re doing.”
Recognition is something the Patriots have excelled at so far this season.
“We knew coming in that defensively our linebackers and our secondary were going to be very strong,” Nixon said. “And then our D-line, we were going to rotate some guys and get some guys in there. And I think we’ve done a good job of getting those guys ready to play, overall. I think they’ve all truly bought in to 11 hats to the ball.”
And that has translated into some impressive play on the field.
Last week, Liberty held a talented Clovis West squad, who plays more of a balanced, pro-style offense with two running backs, scoreless for more than three quarters.
The Patriots limited the Golden Eagles to less than 50 yards rushing in a 17-7 victory. The only score came as the result of a Patriots fumble on their own 1-yard line. Even then, Liberty didn’t make it easy, holding Clovis West out of the end zone for three plays before the Golden Eagles finally punched it in on a fourth-down play.
“It’s still early, but I do like the mentality of them,” Nixon said. “I like their effort. We feel they are improving daily. We’ll see how it all plays out in the end, but they’re working their tails off right now.”
It starts with an experienced group of linebackers, led by a pair of Dylans — seniors Dyan Tooker and Dylan Holmes — and juniors Brady Anderson and Hunter Thorp.
Tooker leads the Patriots with 18 solo tackles and two sacks from his outside linebacker spot. He and Anderson lead the team with 28 total tackles and Anderson has also forced a fumble. Holmes has 25 tackles and two tackles for a loss, and Thorp has 13 tackles this season.
“I think they’re a very physical unit,” said Nixon, who has also received solid play from his defensive backs, led by safety Jake O’Connell, who has 11 tackles, two for loss, and six pass deflections. “They like being physical, and they like playing hard and fast. It’s a fun group to watch.”
The linebacker corps has so much depth that it enabled Nixon to move senior Nathan Mariscal from linebacker to fill a need at defensive end prior to the team’s scrimmage last month.
“That’s kind of a big deal to help solidify our defensive end spot,” said Nixon of Mariscal, who has teamed with junior Randon Reeder for 28 tackles this season. “And I think he’s done a good job. He moved there because of a need and he’s done a phenomenal job there.”
After shutting out a hard-nosed, run-dominant Paso Robles team 24-0 in the season opener, Liberty overcame several mistakes, and the loss of its quarterback Haden Mann, to hold off a Ridgeview team that has piled up 980 yards and 107 points in its other two games this season.
But not against the Patriots.
The Wolf Pack scored a touchdown late in the first half and added two fourth-quarter field goals in Liberty’s 21-13 victory, but managed just 228 yards. The Patriots registered four sacks, forced a fumble and had an interception to help them slow down Ridgeview.
“We have to continue to watch film and continue to see tendencies or packages or things like that that we can identify with,” said Nixon, who is hopeful that Mann might return this week. The junior quarterback injured his ankle against Ridgeview in Week 2 and junior Brady Torigiani guided the team past Clovis West last week.
“(The defense) has done a nice job of identifying and being able to adjust to that. I think that’s all preparation during the week and film study by those guys. And they’re all hustling. I think that’s the neatest part about it. They’re getting after it. So that’s a good deal.”