On-field coaches, LBs Denison, Martinez keep Iowa in position, right frame of mind

Tucked in the middle of Iowa’s defense is a pair of seniors who have become the heart of the Yellow Jackets defense.

Ross Denison and Jesse Martinez combined for 25 tackles in last week’s 31-28 win over Westlake and have helped lead the Yellow Jackets to their first 8-0 start since the 2017 season.

“Those two play a vital role in the run fits and getting everyone lined up real quick,” Iowa head coach Tommy Johns said. “They are the ones that have to fit off the front.

“We have had some good (linebackers) over the last six or seven years. Neither one of them, from a speed or raw talent standpoint, are the best ones, but I still think they rank at the top because of their smarts. They have the ability to recognize what is coming, to make the call and all that.

“It makes me feel a lot more comfortable and makes our players feel more comfortable because they are going to get it right and set it up. They make sure it gets done.”

The duo have been vital in stopping the run and have knocked down a combined seven passes this season.

Denison, a two-year starter, leads Iowa with 90 total tackles plus six tackles for a loss, seven quarterback hurries and has scored twice, including one on a blocked punt.

“It really started in the offseason,” Denison said. “I focused on training a lot harder than I did in the past years. I really wanted to do good with this team, especially my last year.”

Martinez has made a big impact in his first season as a starter with 57 tackles and a team-high seven tackles for a loss.

“I have been working on my technique, my first step and reading guards,” Denison said. “I needed to play fast and efficient.

“I feel like it has been pretty good. Obviously, it can be better. I am nowhere near where my potential is. I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement.”

Iowa has held opponents to just over 18 points a game, improving each season since allowing 26.2 a game in 2018 and going 3-6 when the current crop of seniors were freshmen.

“Our team is doing a lot better,” Denison said. “It is not just me making plays. My team helps me a lot, especially my defensive line. We are working more together as a team than we have in the past years. If everyone is doing their job, we are going to continue to be successful.”

“It is the togetherness of the team,” Martinez said. “We are all united. We don’t yell at each other. We always help one another when someone gets down. Eight-and-0 is just a number. It doesn’t mean much of anything. It is the work and the talent we have. I think we can go pretty much wherever we want to.”

Combined with a pair of four-year starters in the secondary — Crajuan Bennett and Brycen Leblanc — and Keegan Bertrand leading the defensive line, Johns has a lot of confidence in his defense heading into Friday’s District 4-3A showdown with Lake Charles College Prep (5-3, 3-0) that will decide the district championship.

“We have been fairly consistent,” Johns said. “A lot of these guys were playing as freshmen. We started five in 2018. We have made progress every year. We have confidence in all our guys.

“We are going to have our hands full this week, obviously. This isn’t the biggest or fastest we have ever been, but it is the most consistent in a while. They are playing hard.

“They have really come together off the field. They are a close group. They make a big play, it is on to the next one. They don’t get too high or too low. They are pretty even keel.”

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