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Unheralded LBs are backbone of defense

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Nick O’Brien gets fired up after stopping Central Valley standout Ja’Quan Gardner near the line of scrimmage during Manteca High’s Sac-Joaquin Section playoff opener on Nov. 15.

HIME ROMERO/Bulletin file photo/

POSTED December 12, 2013 12:23 a.m.

Jake LeDon shuffles the defense around with a broken hand wrapped in padding and bandages.

It looks like a kid’s glove, but there’s clearly nothing “soft” or “delicate” about this senior with grass stains and blood smears.

Lechi Nkwocha toes the line of scrimmage as if it was a starting line in track, waiting to burst into the backfield.

Meanwhile, middle linebackers Chase McKee and Nick O’Brien wait in the alleys and tight spaces of the defense.

And then there is the wild card, senior Peter Moa, a hard-hitting Polynesian who made his long-awaited return in a semifinal victory over Inderkum.

These are the enforcers and punishers of the Manteca High defense, an unheralded unit head coach Eric Reis challenged coming out of summer camp.

“When we came out of summer camp, coach Reis basically said we’re going as far as the defense will take us,” defensive coordinator Rick James said. “We had the components on offense and we were sharp. We got guys like Brandon Dabney and Dom Pisano in the secondary. I looked at all the pieces and the only thing left was the linebacking corps.

“The guys took that challenge. They decided they didn’t want to be that missing link. That’s been a motivating factor, ‘Let’s be the strong group, not the missing link.’ ”

James is about to find out just how strong his ’backers have become.

The Buffaloes (13-1) take on Enterprise in the CIF Northern California Division II regional bowl game at Lincoln’s Spanos Stadium.

Kickoff is set for 7:30.

Enterprise (12-0) is just one of eight undefeated teams left in California, punishing North Coast opponents with a unique spread offense.

The Hornets have adopted the spread’s ideology – fanning out of the defense, creating lanes and windows – but won’t attack much through the air.

Instead, junior running back Isaiah Matthews provides the sting, powering his way through defenses.  Matthews has rushed for 1,761 yards and 25 touchdowns, and he’s averaging nearly 8.5 yards per carry. He is as tall and as strong as Sacramento’s Lonny Powell with the wiggle of Central Valley’s JaQuan Gardner.

“Every week we’re faced with a new challenge,” said LeDon, the Buffs’ only returning to starter at linebacker. “He runs low and he’s good, so you’ve got to give him respect for that. But I don’t think he’s been hit the way we’ll hit him.”

The onus doesn’t fall squarely on Manteca’s linebackers. This game, like all the others, will be dictated by the battles along the line of scrimmage. Enterprise boasts a massive line with at least one major Division I recruit.

Still, Reis’ summer challenge echoes around the second level of the Buffaloes’ 3-4 defense.

“This whole year Coach has been referencing the section championship teams of the past,” said Nkwocha, an all-Valley Oak League first-team performer. “We knew we had to step up. He asked us if we wanted to be champions. …

“Yes, we do.”

Each linebacker blossomed in less-than-ideal conditions. James was forced to replace three starters before the season and then lost Moa unexpectedly in Week 4. The schedule didn’t do the Buffaloes many favors, either.

Each hurdle has been met with a hard hat and a hunger, James said, and their dogged pursuit of a section championship culminated with one of their finer performances in a 49-6 win last week.

“When the helmet goes on and they get a chance to play the game, they want to play at a high level,” he added. “It’s been a process, no doubt, but they’re pushing each other to get better.”

LeDon was recently named the Valley Oak League’s Defensive Player of the Year. He and leads the Buffaloes in fumble recoveries and battle scars. He broke his hand against Sonora and initially was told he’d miss the rest of the season. Following a second opinion, he was back on the field against Oakdale, his hand packaged like a piece of fine crystal.

Nkwocha’s athleticism has made him tough to handle on the edge. The junior, who qualified for the section Masters track and field championships, leads Manteca with three fumble recoveries and 11 sacks, including three last Friday. He is second on the team in tackles with 84.

His job on Saturday is to make sure Wallace doesn’t bounce his run outside.

If he does?

“Tackle him high and swarm,” he said.

James can’t remember having a better set of outside linebackers in his 3-4 scheme.

“As far as play-making ability, you have to go back quite a few years to see that talent being matched,” he said. “Jake and Lechi have been pretty special for us.”

Inside, James has the luxury of mix-and-matching his talent according to opponent and plan. He’s rotated Nick O’Brien (61 tackles), Chase McKee (61 tackles) and Hector Soto (48 tackles) with much success.

Now he can add Moa (23 tackles, three sacks) to the mix. He’ll likely start at middle linebacker on Saturday.

“Every single one of us has been a starter. We know what it takes,” said O’Brien, whose older brother Jon was a linebacker with Manteca’s 2005 and ’06 section championship teams.

“I don’t see it as competition. It’s more like we’re all working together; helping each other out. We’ve got faith in all our linebackers.”

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