In the human body, a series of 33 vertebrae form the backbone.
In the Central Catholic defense, two players fuse to perform that function. In addition to piling up tackles, senior inside linebackers Ross Corcoran and Sam Kochert have provided a veteran presence and critical on-field leadership for the three-time defending Class A state champions.
“Ross and Sam, they’re the two guys on our defense that are our constants,” Central Catholic coach Kevin O’Shea said. “Those two guys get us set up. They make our slant calls, they make our strength calls, and the basically get our front seven ready to play.”
Cocoran, a three-year starter, recorded 18 tackles in last week’s sectional championship victory over Pioneer. He’s recorded 126 for the season and also has three interceptions. Yet his most important roles may be as the on-field orchestrator of the Knights’ defense and as a conduit of information from the coaches.
In three seasons and 42 games with Corcoran starting at inside linebacker, Central Catholic has held opponents to 7.3 points per game. Only two teams have scored more than 14 points on the Knights in that span.
“This being my senior year, I wanted the defense to be really, really strong,” Corcoran said.
O’Shea said Corcoran, the reigning Journal & Courier Small School Defensive Player of the Year, has progressed to where he can occasionally make the defensive calls on his own.
“He really keeps everybody in line,” sophomore defensive lineman and linebacker Grant Vogt said. “During the game I get kind of excited and like to cheer a lot, but Ross gets everybody back in the huddle and makes sure everybody is focused.”
Kochert recorded 16 of his 111 tackles in the Pioneer victory. Now a senior, he earned his starting job before last season by proving he understood the “key and read” philosophy central to Central Catholic’s defensive success.
Those three words pop up when any Central Catholic player or coach discusses the team’s defensive success.
“A lot of teams compliment us on our speed,” Kochert said. “Well, it’s not that we’re better athletes. I think a lot of the teams we play have better athletes. It’s because of the coaches’ key-and-read defensive tactic that allows us to play so fast.”
The Knights have used a smaller defensive line this season in their 3-4 alignment. Yet Central Catholic’s defense has maintained its hard-hitting and imposing reputation, thanks in part to the physical presence supplied by Corcoran, Kochert and outside linebacker Brad Schrader.
Nigel Hensley, a converted defensive back, starts as the outside linebacker on the weak side.
Heritage Christian, a Class 2A sectional finalist that averaged 42.5 points per game, is the only team to score more than 14 points against Central Catholic this season. And the Eagles don’t prioritize running the ball, which has been the biggest challenge for Knights opponents.
“Because our guys are little up front and trying eat up space, our linebackers sometimes have one-on-ones with a 200-pound running back,” O’Shea said. “We need them to take that on.”