ARP — Arp has a simple philosophy on defense: fly to the football and hit anything that moves.
On the strength of their defense, the Tigers have flown through the first three rounds of the Class 2A Division II playoffs, a progression that has been all about progress. Arp graduated seven starters from last year’s defense, including each starting lineman and linebacker. But, behind their top playmakers DJ Riley and Michael Roberson, the Tigers have a stout stop unit that’s been vital to their playoff run.
Arp (10-2), which takes on Lexington (10-2) in the state quarterfinals Friday at Waco ISD Stadium, has only allowed more than one first-half touchdown once since the middle of September, that coming in a 44-24 win over West Rusk.
“We’ve kind of progressed throughout the year and gotten better as we go along,” Arp coach Dale Irwin said. “We’ve wanted to peak during the playoffs and I think that’s what we’re doing.
“We’re very pleased with our play now but I’m telling you, there’s some tough teams coming up, so we just need to try to keep progressing every week.”
Much of the success on defense has been due to the play of Riley and Roberson.
Riley, a 5-10, 190-pound senior inside linebacker, leads the team with 127 tackles and four forced fumbles, despite playing through an injury for much of the year.
“He’s been in the system three years now and he’s just gotten progressively better every year,” Irwin said. “Now we need him to be the leader of the defense and he is; he’s stepped into that role very well.”
Roberson, a 5-9, 165-pound junior free safety, has a team-best seven interceptions to go with 96 tackles, which trails only Riley. Roberson is also second on the team with 22 receptions.
“He’s got experience,” Irwin said. “He’s kind of our general in the secondary.”
Riley said the team works hard on defense every day to keep improving.
“We get a lot more disciplined every day,” he said. “We learn a lot more every day.”
Riley said he likes the fly-to-the-ball philosophy on defense, though it’s not all helter-skelter.
“The coaches do a good job of letting us know what they’re going to do,” Riley said.
Added Roberson: “We know what’s coming before the offense even says hut most of the time.”
Arp’s defense continues to get better despite losing key players to injury, including Kasey McClendon. Younger players like sophomore John Hawkins and freshman Marcalas Johnson have filled in admirably.
“We have no loose ends,” Roberson said. “Everybody’s one brick wall.”
Hawkins stepped into McClendon’s inside linebacker spot and had a team-high nine tackles and one sack in last week’s 41-21 win over Corrigan-Camden.
“We’ve just had some guys step up their level of play since we had those injuries and it just goes to show you how resilient these kids are,” Irwin said. “I think it’s a combination of us facing some adversity and then us responding to that adversity and then overcoming it.”
After facing a lot of Wing T offenses so far this year, the Tigers will face a spread offense on Friday. The Eagles have thrown for 2,650 yards and run for 2,238, with quarterback Kogan Garrett (3,535 total yards) leading the way.
Roberson said he’s looking forward to the challenge of a new offense to stop, adding that the Tigers look to contain Garrett and get the Arp offense back on the field as quickly as possible.
“We’re going to win the hitting game every week and for the past three to four weeks we’ve done that,” Irwin said. “That’s going to be our philosophy; it’s always been our philosophy. It’s just run and hit anything that moves.”