Austin Shoup's legs were swinging as he sat on the bed of a red pickup truck in the Erie Middle School parking lot after football practice Friday.
Soon, the in-ground sprinklers poked their way through the light green grass with a hiss before they started spewing water. Shoup swiftly jumped off the truck and dodged the water and headed for a dry patch.
The way he moved was akin to the way the Erie-Prophetstown defense hopes to move this season. Quick and purposeful.
"We're going to be fast," Shoup said. "It's all about the hands and making sure to hit your guy first and in the right spot. We are going to be quicker than our opponent."
Shoup will be playing defensive end for the Panthers this season after his family moved from Morrison recently. He played football for the Mustangs for three seasons. Now, at E-P, Shoup will be a key piece on a defensive line that has spent its first several practices focused on speed and being the first to contact.
The 6-foot, 195-pound end said he has never gone through such intensive conditioning workouts until this season, which stemmed from head coach Chuck Milem wanting to be a better unit than in previous seasons. The 7-year coach harped on being in shape and conditioned, for long defensive series.
"We have been working on being fast and reading the play," Shoup said. "We have no-huddle packages, and it is making us watch the ball more so we don't go offsides. It's tough, but our conditioning is unbelievable."
Kolton Zaagman, a junior linebacker, said that his first several varsity practices have been very fast and up-tempo compared with his time spent at linebacker at other levels in the program.
"We always want to be faster than the other team or the other guy," Zaagman said. "We have been getting to the line quickly, no walking and just going fast. We want to hit them hard with no rest period.
"It's new for me, but I really like it. The guys are really making sure we are doing everything hard."
Last season, the Panthers went 8-3 and lost in the second round of the 3A playoffs. Of the three losses, two came against eventual state champions. The Panthers were knocked out by Stillman Valley, the eventual 3A state champion. The Panthers also lost to Newman during the regular season.
The Comets went on to win the state championship in 2A. The losses to high-caliber teams is a bit of a sour pill for the Panthers, who believe they should also be able to play at that level.
"Our long-term goal is to get back to that level of play last year," Milem said. "We lost to two state champs. We still talk about that, but we talk about how to return back to that level of play in the beginning of our season."
The reason for the fast tempo on defense has been to try to get the defense to new heights and to be on par with a productive offense.
Last season, the offense scored 393 points over 11 games, including nine regular season games and two playoff games. The defense allowed 255 points in that same span, about 23 points per game.
Milem knows that his offense is capable of putting up points, but also wants his defense to be able to take some of the pressure off that bunch and not to get into as many shootouts against teams.
But while Milem wanted to be aggressive on defense, it was the players who have taken that instruction to a new level. The seniors are the ones that have been pushing the pace and working hard, without any direction coming from the top.
"I haven't really emphasized [speed] too much," Milem said. "We talked about it a bit, and they're rolling with it. We were able to score so much last year and, defensively, we just have to make sure we're sound."
Milem can point to one of the first goals of the season as the starting point for the type of practices that have been very fast. The goal was for each player to get better each day, while making sure to pick a teammate and push him into doing something better. That has taken on a mind of its own, which has upped the level of play that Milem has seen so far.
Dylan Binion, a 4-year varsity linebacker, is one player who has noticed the fast style of play. Binion will also play fullback this season and has gotten a taste of what his defensive mates have been up to, while watching the offense match that play.
"It's pretty crazy," Binion said. "Everybody is going harder each day and you have guys wanting to outwork a guy, who beat them at something the day before. It's something I like to see."
Did you know?
Erie-Prophetstown has qualified for state the past two seasons. It is the longest such streak in school history. The last time the Panthers qualified was in 2002 under coach Chris Lindsey.
Last year's team was also the first to finish with a winning record since that 2002 season.