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Fighting Tigers ‘Iron Curtain’ defense shuts down opponents

Jim Walker
jim.walker@irontontribune.com

Forget “The Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s era Pittsburgh Steelers. This defense has become the immovable object.
The Ironton Fighting Tigers defense — especially near the goal line — has been hard to penetrate. Most touchdowns have come on a long pass or run. It has become well-deserving of the nickname The Iron Curtain.
“It’s just their mentality on that side of the ball. The defense, they’ve stepped up and they played great all year no matter who the opponent is and the type of scheme they’re running,” said Ironton head coach Trevon Pendleton.
“Our defense just loves to play football, they love to get 11 hats to the ball. They just love to get after people. It’s just their mentality on that side of the ball.”
The big name on the defensive side is 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior linebacker Reid Carrico who has given a verbal commitment to Ohio State.
But this is a complete unit including fellow inside junior linebacker Cameron Deere.
Last week in the Division 5 Region 19 quarterfinals, Ironton was in lockdown mode. The Fighting Tigers limited the Wellston Golden Rockets to a mere 35 yards of total offense. Wellston had minus 3 yards at halftime and most of the positive yardage came against the second team.
Ironton has allowed 62 points all season and only twice has a team scored two touchdowns in a game. Ashland handed Ironton its only loss of 16-10 when the Tomcats got their second TD in overtime. The other time was in a 49-12 win over the Coal Grove Hornets.
There are other numbers that have been impressive.
The defense has allowed just 101 first downs including only five to Wellston and one in the first half.
Opponents have just 1,151 yards rushing on 350 carries. Wellston had 25 carries for minus 23 yards.
In the passing department, teams have completed 58-of-135 attempts for just 823 yards and 12 interceptions. Senior safety Gage Salyers has four interceptions including a Pick 6.
“I think we have the best secondary in the state in Division 5 to be honest. Collin (Freeman) has improved. He’s one of the best corners in the state. He’s matured and knows what to do. Kyle Howell got moved to safety and he’s learning more about that. Jordan Grizzle has really played well. We cause teams havoc when they try to throw,” said Salyers.
“When someone has the ball, all 11 hats are around it. I think we have the best defense in the state in Division 5 and we show that every game.”
As Salyers mentioned, he has plenty of help in the secondary with fellow seniors Freeman and Grizzle.
For Grizzle, the playoff road has been a lot more work than it has from others. As a sophomore, he suffered an ACL and MCL knee injury in the Chesapeake game. But he came back determined to play as a junior and he did just that.
That hard work and toughness continued into his senior season and helped him overcome any apprehensions he might have regarding the stability of his knee.
“When coach Pendleton got there, the training was a lot different, so I knew my knee would be stronger. I had a great doctor so I didn’t have much to worry about,” said Grizzle.
Early in the season, Grizzle was playing safety but then shifted to outside linebacker. He admits there’s s difference but he has made the transition with ease.
“There’s a big difference. I have to give hats off to the secondary this year. They’ve stepped up big time. When you’re out there, you’re kind of on an island and it’s all you. If the (opposing) team scores, you’re the last defender, said Grizzle.
“As outside linebacker, I feel that I can just go and be aggressive. I like it a lot better at outside linebacker because I don’t have to rely just on myself. I can rely on the guys in front of me and behind me to make a play. It makes my life a lot easier.”
One reason Grizzle was able to move from the secondary to linebacker was the stellar play of Freeman.
“I didn’t have that much experience last year. I just want to be leader on the team this year and try to show the younger guys to be aggressive and play to your ability,” said Freeman.
“In the offseason, I worked with my eye control so that I didn’t look in the backfield as much and just playing with a different swag and having more fun with the game,” said Freeman who has two interceptions this season and a third that he returned for a touchdown that was erased due to a penalty.
Freeman said he has improved on his defensive technique to go along with his experience. And not only has he improved, but he said so has the entire secondary.
“I think we’ve improved. Last year I didn’t think, me being a first-year player and not playing my sophomore year, I was inexperienced at the corner.,” said Freeman.
“This year, I feel like we have more experience because we have Kyle (Howell) moving in from (Portsmouth) West where he played a little bit. And, of course, Gage. He’s started all three years. At the beginning of the year, we started Grizzle at safety and he moved to outside backer. We call it the LCDC – the Lawrence County Detention Center.”
The big three up front on the defensive line are seniors Seth Fosson and Junior Jones and sophomore Nate Cochran. The trio have spent the season terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and helping to shut down the run.
“We’re pretty powerful on the D-line. We’re pretty dominant. In practice, we prepare really hard for the game. We get together after practice and work on things. We’ve done a pretty good job this year,” said Jones
Jones had two shoulder surgeries his junior year and he admitted he’s just now getting back to 100 percent.
“I’ve kind to had to play a little different. My shoulder is coming back and I’m trying to stick to the way I’ve been playing the past couple of years,” said Jones.
The front three are aggressive and Jones said there is no secret to the way they play.
“The D-Line is just told to go out there and be nasty and be physical. We don’t have any responsibilities. We get after it every week. We feel pretty confident. We just have to go out and prepare and do what we need to do,” said Jones.
“I think we’re the best in the state out there. No one else is going to beat us besides us.”
Grizzle said the team has put in extra time and work as they set their sights on the ultimate goal of a state championship. The extra work has been a key in making the defense so strong this season.
“Each week in and out, we learn a lot. We watch a lot of film together, especially the defense. We pick up on tendencies, especially the receivers and our keys. We bond well together on the defensive side and we take a lot of pride in it,” said Grizzle.
“Mainly it’s just doing it for each other. There are a lot of unselfish guys on the team. We’ve got each other’s back no matter what. If someone makes a mistake, there’s someone else there to cover for you. We’ve got a really strong bond this year.”
And if Ironton wins the state championship, they’ll be able to take a curtain call.
An Iron Curtain call.