If John Holecek isn't the best defensive strategist this side of Buddy Ryan...well, it is difficult to imagine anyone who is better equipped to teach the do's and don'ts of defense to high school football players than someone with his pedigree.
Holecek, Loyola Academy's fifth-year coach, was an All-State linebacker at Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights. He was an All-Big 10 linebacker at Illinois. And he played in the NFL for eight years, seven under defense-minded Wade Phillips.
After taking two years to get his players to buy into his system and his defensive philosophy, Holecek has guided Loyola to 30 victories in 36 games over the last three years. Last year's 11-2 team lost to two-time state champion Maine South in the semifinals. This year's 8-1 squad, which hosts Whitney Young Saturday in Wilmette, has allowed one touchdown or less in six games.
In high school, Holecek was taught to be aggressive, come downhill, press the line of scrimmage and, in his own words, "destroy things."
Under Lou Tepper at Illinois, however, he became a technician. Tepper was an expert on linebacking play. He even wrote a book on the subject.
"I saw that technique wins," Holecek said. "It taught me how to play well and to move on to the next level. I had no technique coming out of high school. It was all physical. In college, I realized that technique was the most important thing on the football field."
In the NFL, Holecek saw different systems. Under Phillips' guidance, he learned how to adjust. He learned that flexibility was the key to playing good defense. "You had to change your strengths and take away what the offense does," he said.
In his first two years at Loyola--his teams were 7-5 and 9-4--he played a 4-3 defense that suited the talent and strengths of his personnel. He had to make an adjustment to volunteer coaches and established a learning curve to put all of his players on the same page. Finally, in his third season, he was able to switch to a more flexible 3-4 defense.
"My philosophy is to take away an offense's strengths," Holecek said. "To do that, you must be flexible and unpredictable. You must come fro all angles on the field at different times with different blitz looks. It is a system that is relatively complicated for high school."
But it works for Holecek. In college and the NFL, defenses must match up personnel because athletes are different. In high school, some athletes are as good at 6-1 and 200 pounds as they are at 5-9 and 185. Size isn't as big a deal in high school as it is in college and the NFL, not if you have enough quickness and smarts and moxie.
"You have to put players in position to make plays, to put them in a position to succeed," Holecek said. "What do you look for at a Loyola game? Who is coming and why? Who is on the blitz and how do they disguise it?
"We try to disguise blitzes and cme from all angles to be sure that opponents can't practice against certain looks. We have basic things we do and do well and on certain downs, maybe all downs, but we won't be predictable unless we think we can line up and beat you."
Why the emphasis on blitzing? "Because they are big plays. They create turnovers and minus yardage. If you can get a team in a second-and-12 situation, it is easier not to give up a first down. Yes, you are taking a chance. But it is calculated. And we're always looking for certain players who can do it. After all, you have to have players to win."