Loyola coach John Holecek is a defensive genius. His Ramblers have allowed only 134 points in 12 games, only three touchdowns in their last five. The former Illinois and NFL linebacker has a knack for putting the right personnel in the right spot where they can succeed.
"I look for smart athletes, kids who are physical and can make plays," Holecek said. "We have a very quick defense. It isn't overpowering. We have a good collection of smart kids in the right spots. They know the strengths and weaknesses of our calls. They are a heady group. We utilize their skills."
So what is 5-foot-11, 230-pound Darby Goodwin doing in the middle of Loyola's 3-4 defense? How did he get to be a three-year starter at nose tackle? How did he get to be the Defensive Player of the Year in the Catholic League's Blue Division? And why don't any college recruiters outside of Division III seem to care?
"He is a natural football player," Holecek said. "You can see it from the first snap. He is confident and tough. He has good football instincts, a good football IQ. He is as reliable and tenacious as they come. He has very good quickness. He is stout, explosive and strong. He has a very high motor. He never stops competing."
Goodwin, lineman Jack Rushin, linebacker Cody Sullivan, conference MVP and safety Luke Ford and their friends form a crack defensive unit that has recorded four shutouts and allowed only four opponents to score more than one touchdown. Going into Saturday's Class 8A semifinal against Glenbard North, the Ramblers have permitted only two touchdowns in three playoff games.
In a majority of snaps, Goodwin is double teamed by blockers who often weigh 60-80 pounds more than he does. But he has recorded 11 sacks, four short of the school record.
"He is street tough," Holecek said. "He says little but plays football. He is as gritty as they come."
Goodwin admits it is a challenge to contend against bigger linemen on every snap. "I have to play with a chip on my shoulder. I'm confident that I am better than them. I play with that mindset all the time. The offensive lineman talk trash. They look down at me. I know I am smaller. I have to be quicker, use my speed, stay low, use leverage. I can't stop. The most fun I have is when I eat them and get a sack," he said.
He was overwhelmed after the regular season when Holecek informed him that he had been singled out as the Defensive Player of the Year in the Catholic League's Blue Division.
"I was a little surprised. I couldn't believe it was happening. It was pretty awesome," Goodwin said. "But then, when I began to think about it, I felt I had earned it. I worked really hard for the last two years."
Longer than that. Holecek learned about Goodwin from a former player who was coaching the youngster in a youth football program at Wildwood Park. His parents, who are missionaries, moved to Chicago when he was 5. He began playing football in sixth grade.
"My former player called me and said Goodwin was a great kid, that he literally was ripping jerseys off opponents," Holecek said.
As Goodwin recalls, he was an inch shorter and 30 pounds lighter than he is today. "Every day, I wish I was 6-foot-5 and weigh 250 pounds. I pray every day for an extra three or four inches. But I can only hope for the best. I hope someone will give me a chance, even Division III," he said.
Holecek believes he could be an undersized defensive lineman in college or a linebacker in a 3-4 defense. It bothers Goodwin that he hears only from Division III schools. He wants to play football in college, at the highest level he can.
"I know size is a big factor," he said. "But I know I can play. Look at my film, my statistics. I love the game, no matter where it is."
At the moment, most importantly, it is at Loyola. He was an offensive lineman as a freshman, then was moved up to the varsity as a sophomore and converted to the defensive line. It didn't take long for him to understand that Holecek and defense added up to a very successful program.
"Watching the players before me, like Chance Carter (now at Northwestern), I realized Loyola had the No. 1 defense in the nation," Goodwin said. "Coach Holecek puts us in position to make plays. If you are in the right position, you can make plays."
In last Saturday's 19-7 victory over Palatine, his job was to pressure and harass Palatine quarterback Ethan Olles, who had passed for more than 3,000 yards. Goodwin, double teamed as usual, had only one sack. But he helped to hurry Olles into throwing four interceptions.
This week, he will have a different responsibility against Justin Jackson and Glenbard North's run-oriented offense. "They are physical and run the ball. I must eat double teams so our linebackers can be free to make plays. I realize usually against heavy run teams that I have to sacrifice my body, take on a double team, take out two blocks, so the linebacker can make a tackle," he said.
And hope those college recruiters look at the film.