By CONOR NICHOLL
HAYS – Fourth-year Hays High football coach Tony Crough knew 2021 had the most experienced roster in recent Indian history. HHS enjoyed 15 returning starters, including nine defensively.
The experienced unit was paced by three seniors: defensive tackle Gavin Nutting, linebacker Gavin Meyers and linebacker Dalton Dale, along with junior defensive lineman Carson Spray The quartet were all at least three-year starters. Nutting and Meyers are four-year starters.
Nutting is the rare large-school player who starts on both lines.
“He just seems to be a better football player when he is on the field more,” Crough said.
Meyers, with FBS offers, is Hays High’s all-time leading tackler. Per recruiting leader 24/7, Meyers is ranked as Kansas’ No. 7 prospect in the Class of 2022.
“Meyers, he is a physical kid,” Wichita East coach Ene Akpan said. “He loves contact. That’s a linebacker I like.”
Under defensive coordinator Layton Hickel, they transformed the Indian defense. In 2018, Hays High allowed 32.4 points a game, the Indians’ worst scoring defense in at least 25 years. The next year, HHS allowed 29 points a game. Last season, HHS permitted 16 points per contest, fourth-best in Class 5A.
It marked HHS’ best scoring defense since 14.3 points permitted in 2010 and third-best in the last 20 years, per the Kansas Football History database.
The Indians graduated three generational-type players with defensive back Tucker Veach and linemen Trey Adams and Gaven Haselhorst, a Kansas State commit and state tackles for loss leader.
This summer, Crough heard “a lot” about the Indians’ physicality on both sides of the ball.
On Friday, the physical play showed in a signature 35-6 home victory against Wichita East at Lewis Field Stadium. East was Class 6A’s No. 1 scoring defense last season.
“We just kind of thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s just because we have got a lot of older kids and returners out here, but I do think we have a physical unit,” Crough said. “We have got backs and skill guys that will run you over. … Then our defensive guys, every single one of them will smack you.”
Afterward, Akpan was asked overall about Hays High’s defense.
East faces Kapaun Mt. Carmel this week and later has Bishop Carroll and Wichita Northwest. KMC and Northwest were 1-2 in 5A scoring defense in 2020. Carroll held every opponent under its season scoring average last fall and is ranked No. 3 in 5A this season. Last year, KMC was the more physical team in an 18-point win in Hays.
Akpan quickly brought up HHS’ physical play, and senior quarterback Jaren Kanak, a Clemson commit who accounted for 484 yards.
“Hays, that’s the best team that we are going to see from a physical standpoint,” Akpan. “I think that’s the best player we are going to see in Kanak. Size, speed. I mean, he’s a great player.”
Crough was pleased to hear the compliment, and it crystallized the viewpoint from the summer.
“That’s fun to hear, because we are trying pride ourselves on that,” Crough said. “And it’s fun to hear other coaches say that. … It’s the fourth year of our weights program, and I am telling you, that’s the difference.”
Hays High tied for the fewest points allowed in a season opener since a 46-6 win versus Chapman in 2010. HHS won a Week 1 game at home for the first time in eight years. East had been 12-4 in its previous 16 games. The four losses had come by a combined 33 points.
“The past few years, we have kind of been a team that kind of piddle-paddled around,” Kanak said. “Kind of I would say sometimes got lucky. We came out in that second half, and we showed them that we are a team that can compete, and we can shove the ball down their throat, and we can make these close games not close.”
East had averaged more than 40 points a game and returned three of its top-four skill players. Afterward, Crough elected to give the game ball to the entire defense. In its 2020 season opener, East set a school record for points in an 80-0 win versus Wichita North.
“Huge props to the D,” Kanak said. “They shut them out in the first half, and just kept on them the second half. It wouldn’t be the game that it was without them and how great they played.”
Hays High limited East to under 120 rushing yards (57 that came on one play). East had just 52 yards in the first half. Overall, Meyers finished with three quarterback hurries, two tackles for loss (including a sack) and a forced fumble.
Nutting recorded a pair of tackles for loss, including one inside the red zone that elicited a big celebration. Hays High moved to 12-0 against Wichita City League public schools since a 7-6 overtime loss to Wichita North to open 1998, per the Kansas Football History database.
“They did exactly what we thought we were going to do,” Akpan said. “Hays has a lot of movement on their D-line. Their d-line played well. Also with their linebacker, with their blitzes, it was hard to pick up.”
Crough labeled Hickel, a former Claflin standout who recorded 294 tackles in his career at Fort Hays, “just stellar” and a coach who “always has a great plan.”
“We have got kids now, when you look at their jerseys, they are filling them out,” Crough said. “Three, four years ago, we had a lot of talent with kids just weren’t physically ready to handle the load that these guys are now, so it’s fun to watch it kind of show up as all the work these kids have put in.”
Crough and the Indians believe HHS can be another top-five 5A defense in 2021. In addition to the key returners, Hays High had standout performances from senior defensive lineman Iden Baalman and junior outside linebacker/safety Remy Stull. Plus, junior Grayson Walburn switched from the offensive to defensive line.
In 2020, Stull played in just two games and was hurt the rest of the year. This summer, Crough believed Stull would be a breakout player. He finished with a forced fumble, tackle for loss and an interception. Dale forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and had a sack. Dale and Stull notably delivered massive hits.
“We call him a ball magnet, because it seems like whenever the defense needs a play, he ends up around the ball somehow and making a play,” Crough said.
Junior Connor Dreiling had a tackle for loss and a pass defended. Spray and Walburn each had a tackle for loss. Senior Ty Adams broke up a pass.
“I think our defense has a chance to be as good or better just because collectively, I mean we are just older, we have got size in the secondary, big guys now,” Crough said. “And then all those guys that have been really good for the last couple of years, Dale, and Meyers and Spray and some of them that are all a year older, too – Nutting. Man, I really like our defense.”
Hays High led 7-0 at halftime. Behind the physicality, the Indians opened up a big lead in the third quarter.
“We didn’t really make too many adjustments,” Kanak said. “It kind of just came down to who was going to be tough and who wanted it more. … We started hitting them in the mouth. The score went up.”
Per Crough, Meyers finished with 14 tackles Friday and has 275 career tackles, unofficially. Meyers said the team’s coverage is “a lot better” than 2020. Plus, Baalman stepping up on the line has proved critical. Baalman finished with 3.5 tackles for loss.
“From last year to this year he has transformed tremendously,” Meyers said of Baalman. “And I think it’s helped the defense so much. He’s like a replacement for Trey Adams. Trey Adams was long, lengthy. … When Baalman came in, he stepped right up. He did the same thing, and our defensive line is very dominant because of him.”
Hays High is well-known for its weight room work both in and out of school hours. Nutting and Meyers believed that is a big key. Meyers and Nutting are both former state wrestling medalists.
“You have got to eat right,” Meyers said. “You have got to train on your own, and that’s what makes you stand out is training on your own – and eating right, and I think our d-line does that.”
“You have got to go find something to do,” Nutting added. “You have to stay busy.”
Meyers has offers from Colorado and Nebraska. While others in his class had multiple offers this summer, Meyers’ last offer came from Akron on April 7.
“We think Gavin needs to have an incredible first three games this season, and when he does, we think that a lot of programs are going to reach out again and go ‘Oh, (no), this is one we need to get back on,’” Crough said this summer.
Meyers ran the 40-yard dash when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh visited Hays this summer. Crough said Michigan “loved” Meyers.
“I do think I need to play better,” Meyers said. “I need to improve my coverage a little bit more, and I think that’s what the college coaches are looking at these days, because coverage is important for a linebacker, and once I improve that, the hope is I get more offers. But as of right now, yeah, I hope I get more offers, but we will just have to see.”