The numbers don’t lie for junior Jack Hileman.
The middle linebacker knows he stands out amongst Derby’s defense due to his 5-foot-7 frame. Perhaps even more notable is the punch No. 4 packs on the stat sheet as he leads the team in tackles (79).
“I’ve had [it said about me] my whole life and I have that chip on my shoulder,” Hileman said. “I also trust my teammates and the players beside me to do their job.”
The junior provided one of last Friday’s biggest highlights when he intercepted Topeka quarterback and KU commit Da’Vonshai Harden on its first drive of the game.
It matched the early special teams and offensive production for the Panthers, giving it three significant plays in the first quarter. Senior defensive back Terry Ginyard’s 69-yard kickoff return was followed by a touchdown on a 4th-and-11 pass to senior wide receiver Cavion Walker. Once the defense took the field, Hileman took advantage of his opportunity.
His 32-yard pick six was the second of the season for the Panthers, joining three other defensive touchdowns through scoop and scores.
“We started getting up for each other and excited one another,” the junior said of the game’s first moments. “We know how to build off [those plays].”
The play came as no surprise for Derby defensive coordinator Austin Wuthrich, commending Hileman for offering the total package at linebacker.
“He’s a phenomenal instinctual football player,” Wuthrich said. “He loves the game. He studies, watches film and he’s said multiple times he wants to get into coaching.”
Hileman has a team-best 53 assists in his total tackle count, but also is tied for third in tackles for loss with 12.
“There are a lot of ways that [his size] is an advantage,” Wuthrich said. “He naturally has great pad leverage. Even though he’s not the biggest guy, he’s able to be in a really good position to make tackles because of his height. He’s hard to block because he’s small and can fit in the small crevices.”
As the middle linebacker in Derby’s defense, Wuthrich said his football IQ is a big part of what has allowed the unit to excel despite zero returning starters.
“Jack is by far the mental leader of our defense,” Wuthrich said. “He knows the game plan and gets us in the right spots … The linebackers look up to him in those moments and he’s so fundamentally sound.”
The success in the middle of the Panther defense stretches beyond No. 4.
Junior classmates Luke Stewart (71 tackles, seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss) and Coleson Syring (44 tackles, five tackles for loss) are both first-year starters at outside linebacker.
“A couple of them had some significant playing time in some cleanup spots [last year], but I’ve been really pleased with how they’ve stepped up and played,” Wuthrich said. “I knew our outside guys were special with both Syring and Stewart … I knew they’d be problems for offenses.”
Wuthrich credited the development of senior linebackers Jarod Noel and Trevon Morrison as both have contributed at the fourth starting spot.
“The last two of three games, [Jarod] had some of his best games at Derby,” the defensive coordinator said. “He was hitting so hard that it looked like glitter was falling down because paint was coming off his helmet. It was crazy.”
Derby’s defense has set a new program-best for all units that have reached a state championship game since 2013. With a total margin of victory that now sits at 511 points through 12 games, it is beating opponents by an average of 42.5 points per game.
“A lot of that is the culture and the commitment that [head coach Brandon] Clark has had since he’s been here,” Wuthrich said. “We’re seeing the fruits of it now. The community supports this team and all of these guys have been raised in it and they’ve bought in. You’re seeing a group of guys that are playing selflessly and aren’t talking about ‘me.’”