Catch It Kansas continues to look at the top players in each position group entering the 2019 football season. While some players are standouts at multiple positions, the goal is to list a player just once. We start our defensive previews off with a look at players to watch across the defensive line.
1. Nate Matlack, Olathe East – Matlack is Kansas’ No. 7 prospect by recruiting service 247 Sports, and was the first commit under new Kansas State coach Chris Klieman. On 247, he is listed as a wide defensive end at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds. Matlack committed to Kansas State on March 25. He a three-star recruit and chose the Wildcats over Kansas, Northern Illinois and Syracuse. Matlack has posted a 40-inch vertical and 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash. OE was 4-6 in ’18.
2. Cody Stufflebean, McPherson – The highly athletic Stufflebean shot up recruiting boards this spring. A three-sport standout and outstanding student, Stufflebean earned offers from Virginia Tech and Kansas State, among others. He committed to the Wildcats. A starting defensive end at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Stufflebean is listed as an athlete by 247 and is the state’s No. 10 recruit. As a sophomore, Stufflebean had 47 tackles, eight for loss and three sacks. Last season, he delivered 33 tackles, 13 TFLs and seven sacks. McPherson advanced to the sub-state title game in 4A before a loss to Goddard. The Bullpups should again contend in 4A.
3.Max VanMeter, Bishop Miege – Also in the Kansas City area, Bishop Miege’s Max VanMeter delivered eight sacks. VanMeter is one of many top returning players for the Stags. He is listed at defensive tackle and stands 6-4, 245. VanMeter finished third in tackles (54) and second in tackles for loss (14) last year for the Stags. VanMeter is the only one of Miege’s top-four sack leaders who returns this fall. Miege is the heavy favorite to capture the Class 4A title, its sixth straight crown. Also in the Eastern Kansas League, Reid Spachman from Blue Valley North is one of the top defensive ends and has received some interest from Air Force, Dartmouth, KU, Kentucky and North Dakota, according to his 247 page.
4. Caleb Haggard, Labette County – Haggard is one of the state’s more productive returning defensive players. In his career, Haggard has 160 tackles, 37.5 TFLs, 17.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. Every season, Haggard has ranked in the top-10 in sacks among his respective class. Last year, he tied for eighth in sacks among the state’s 11-man juniors, according to MaxPreps. Two years ago, he led Kansas sophomores in sacks, one ahead of Lakin’s Hadley Panzer, a Kansas State commit. In ‘17, Haggard helped LC finish 9-2. Last fall, the Grizzlies went 4-5 with losses to Miege and Pittsburg, ranked first and second at year’s end in 4A.
5. Zach Saville, Maize South – Maize South opened 0-3 and finished 6-4. The Mavericks return plenty of talent, including Saville, an all-state first team non-senior defensive lineman by Sports in Kansas last year. The Mavericks have posted a top-10 scoring defense in their respective classification each of the last three years. In that span, Maize South has allowed 15.3, 11.7 and 21.8 points per contest. In his conference, Saville was second team all-league as a sophomore and honorable mention last year.
6. Tyler Dorsey, Derby – After an injury-plagued 2017, Dorsey earned first team all-AVCTL Division I as a junior last season at defensive line. Dorsey helped Derby finish 13-0 and capture the Class 6A state title. Derby permitted just 7.9 points per contest and had the school’s top scoring defense since the 1994 title squad. The Panthers posted Class 6A’s best scoring defense since at least ’06, according to Prep Power Index. Opponents rushed for just 39.3 yards a game and 1.5 yards per carry as Derby threatened the state record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a season. Dorsey delivered 58 tackles, along with 18 TFLs and four sacks.
7. Kyle Haas, Maize – One of the state’s best wrestlers, Haas collected first team all-league at defensive tackle as a sophomore. Maize went 10-2 and advanced to the Class 5A state title game. Haas started as a freshman. Last year, Maize coach Gary Guzman noted Haas showed the ability to wreak havoc in the backfield, move sideline to sideline and create double teams. Maize opened the season with four shutouts and permitted just 14.4 points a contest.
8. Cole Sample, Tonganoxie – Sample has earned a Pittsburg State football offer and a KU track offer. Sample was first all-state 4A and has picked up a Pittsburg State offer with 72 tackles, seven TFLs. He helped the Chieftains to a 7-3 mark and 20.7 points per game allowed.
9. Judson Wiltfong, Norton – Last year, Norton’s Hayden Wiltfong collected first team all-state Class 2A after a standout career as an end. Wiltfong signed with Fort Hays. His brother, Judson, was defensive MVP of the Fort Hays camp this summer, and has picked up a FHSU offer, too. Judson, a senior OL/DL, is part of an experienced group of Bluejays that could significantly improve after a 4-5 season. Judson delivered 64 tackles, three sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries in ’18. He was among the state’s top leaders for tackles from a defensive lineman last year.
10. Noah VanKooten, Phillipsburg – VanKooten, a three-year starter, headlines the Panther line after a 13-0 season and Class 2A state title. Phillipsburg has captured two state championships in the last four years. VonKooten was first team all-Mid-Continent League and honorable mention all-state on both sides of the ball. He is listed at 6-5, 260. In addition, Phillipsburg returns senior linemen Parker Dibble, Tyce Jerby and Austin Miller at defensive line, all whom earned some sort of league recognition on the offensive or defensive line. All four of them are at least six-foot, 190. Phillipsburg and Hoisington lead the pack in 2A West. The Panthers ranked second in 2A in scoring defense at 9.9 points per game.
11. Zeke Howell, Goddard – Howell, the starting nose guard, paced Kansas with 18 sacks last year as a junior and earned first team all-state 4A. Goddard earned state runner-up in Class 4A to Bishop Miege. The Goddard defense was a significant reason for the Lions’ run to the state game. Goddard (10-3) won five straight before the state title loss. In those games, Goddard allowed three, six, seven, 14 and 14 points.
12. Kauli Saili, Jefferson West – Jefferson West features brother Kauli, Pene and Danny Saili. Kauli returns after back-to-back standout seasons on the defensive line. All three were invited to the Top Prospect showcase this summer in Salina. Two years ago, Kauli had 93 tackles, and Pene delivered 92 last season. They had the most tackles by a Jeff West defensive lineman since ’89. Last year, Kauli was first team all-state 3A – the only 3A non-senior selected at defensive line – with 72 tackles, five for loss. Kauli is a senior, Pene a junior and Danny a sophomore.
13. Joel Montgomery, Smith Center – Smith Center has won back-to-back state titles. SC took big graduation losses, especially at running back and 1A co-Defensive Players of the Year Austin Hobelmann (DL) and Logan Zabel (LB). However, the Redmen are again the preseason 1A favorite mainly because of its returning linemen with junior Charlie Timmons and senior Joel Montgomery, a first team all-state selection. Last year, he delivered 105 tackles, 12 for loss, and four sacks. In his career, he has 165 tackles, 24 for loss.
14. Connor Hall, Andover – Andover’s top-four tacklers were all non-seniors in ’18. Hall finished third with 76 tackles and had a massive 31 tackles for loss to lead the team. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Hall helped the Trojans permit just 20.2 points a game.
15. Shay Mahnken, Pittsburg – The Purple Dragons went 8-2 and finished No. 2 in the final 4A rankings to Miege last season. Pittsburg returns three quality players in Shay Mahnken (5-9, 190), Sam Herring (6-0, 250) and Aaron Woods (6-4, 215). All three can bench at least 340 and post a 40-yard dash in at least 4.85 seconds, according to Sports In Kansas. Pittsburg finished 8-2 and allowed just 21.4 points per contest against the classification’s No. 2 schedule, according to Prep Power Index.
16. Talus Price, Salina Central – Price helped Salina Central end a streak of 18 straight losses to 7-3 last year. Price is one of the better nose guards in the state. Price has cleared 1,000 pounds in his three combined lifts of bench, squat and clean. SC allowed 25.7 points per contest, and could improve with Price and defensive end Quinton Stewart (Oklahoma State commit) back, along with new defensive coordinator Austin Kingsbury, the former Concordia head coach. Coach Mark Sandbo called the 5-11, 240-pound Price aggressive and the ideal player to be nose guard in SC’s 3-4 defense.
17. Travese Love, Wellington - The AVCTL IV league also featured Wellington’s Travese Love as a first team all-conference player at defensive end as a junior. Wellington also returns two other players who were second team all-league with Kenny Fehrman and Hunter Greenlee. Fehrman was a sophomore, and Greenlee a junior last year. Fehrman set Wellington’s single season pins record en route to a third-place state showing last fall.
18. Lovette Epelle, Free State - The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Epelle was a first team all-league selection at defensive line last year. Epelle has picked up interest from KU and K-State.
19. Jonah Weber, Hanover – Weber is the Wildcats’ top player – and easily most experienced – as the Wildcats look to capture their fourth straight state title. Hanover has won 38 straight contests, including a forfeit win last year. In the 50-year KSHSAA era, no eight-man squad has won more than 41 games in a row. Weber, a senior, posted 62 tackles, 8.5 for loss last season. In addition to Weber, Axtell junior Kolby Talbot (104 stops, 12 TFLs) and Victoria senior Kirk Huser (6-2, 255) are the top eight-man returning defensive linemen. Huser is a returning starter at nose guard.
20. 2018 City League players – Last season, East’s Uciph McDaniel, South’s Adam Shipp, Bishop Carroll’s Phoenix Smith, and West’s Leon Dixon were all honorable mention City League as underclassmen. McDaniel and Smith will be seniors, while Shipp and Dixon are juniors this fall. McDaniel has transferred to Topeka and is expected to play a key role for the Trojans.