116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Linebackers are at the center of the Cedar Rapids Kennedy defense.
The Cougars have had a strong tradition of standouts at that position and head coach Brian White has another productive corps.
Seniors Alex Koch and Dylan Davis and junior inside linebacker Ryker Stelling have assumed the duties this season for the top-ranked Cougars. Stelling leads the team in tackles, while Koch and Davis are second and third.
“It’s up to our linebackers to make plays,” White said. “So, we have to make sure we have to put the right fit at that position to be able to make those plays. We’ve been pretty fortunate over the years.”
They face a tough task with the potent offense of seventh-ranked Iowa City High in a Class 5A quarterfinal Friday night at Kingston Stadium, starting at 7. The Little Hawks (9-1) average 47.1 points per game, topping 60 points three times this season.
“Our defense has always worked as a unit, I feel,” Davis said after Kennedy’s 23-9 first-round win over Dubuque Senior. “We’ve been able to take on teams as one since the first game, so when that happens we can get stops.”
Kennedy is 10-0 and finished an unbeaten regular season for the second time in school history. White said he has seen similarities to the linebackers of the 2019 state semifinal team — Cade Parker, Sham Graham and Jay Oostendorp. Koch and Oostendorp manned the outside spot as seniors.
Koch is second on the team with 6.5, sacks two back of Andrew Meyers. Koch also has 56.5 tackles with 42 solo. His 25 tackles for loss leads Kennedy.
Stelling has shown a hard-nosed run-stopping knack that hasn’t reached all-stater Parker’s level, but has shown the ability to control the inside with consistent tackling. Stelling has a team-best 68.5 tackles, including 50 solo stops for a team that allows less than 12 points a game.
“You look at Ryker Stelling as a steady tackler and that’s what he is, a lot like Cade. There’s not going to be another Cade. He is in a league of his own but I think that Ryker is the type of linebacker that makes a lot of plays similar to what Cade did. He’s just a steady guy in the middle.”
Davis has 55.5 tackles, 43 solo and 15 tackles for loss. He is a menacing force at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, recording 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss against the Rams. He plays a similar energetic and high-pace role that Graham did.
“Then you look at a guy like Dylan, who is a high motor, highly-athletic guy,” White said. “I’m going to blow everybody up, so he’s like Sham. A little bit rogue. You never know what you’re going to get you just know he’s going to go fast.”
Many Cougars understand the high standards for the position within the program. The trio has embraced the high demands and have continued the tradition.
“They know as soon as they get here as a freshman,” White said. “There are a lot of expectations of you.
“The expectation, if you play linebacker, in this defense, you are there to make plays. You also make tackles for loss and you’re a good leader.”
Grit, guts and competitiveness are key components. Koch, Davis and Stelling have those traits, according to White. He noted that most Kennedy linebackers over the years have been multisport athletes. Davis is a power hitter and overall standout in baseball. Koch is a state qualifier in wrestling and is out for track. Stelling plays basketball and runs track as well.
“You better be tougher than nails,” White said. “You better have a never surrender attitude. If you don’t have those two characteristics, you’re probably not going to be a linebacker for us. What I mean as ‘tough as nails’ is not just physically, but mentally.
“You’re going to play hard. You’re going to play to the whistle. You’re not going to loaf on the backside. You have to have that killer mentality.”
White mentioned each have a strong bond and relation with the coaches and one another. He laughed when he mentioned his nickname for Davis was Marmaduke because of his size, power and thunderous actions. He referred to Koch as a “bulldog” and “load of dynamite” for his strength, thick build, speed and explosiveness. White said Stelling is a “tackling machine” in the center of the defense.
“They are fun to be around,” White said. “You have to build relationships with kids. Those three are fun to be around.
“You have to build relationships to get them to trust you and for you to trust them.”
Kennedy will attempt to slow down a soaring Little Hawk offense that has averaged more than 400 yards per game. City High has surpassed 500 total offensive yards for three straight games, including 540 in a 47-21 first-round victory over a ranked Urbandale team.
The linebackers will have a big impact on the outcome.
“They are the leaders,” White said. “They’re the vocal leaders. They lead by example. You just have to have that.”
White talked to the Cougars about the legacy they want to leave behind when they leave the program. Davis said they have the potential to be special, but it won’t be easy.
“Anything we put our minds to,” Davis said. “It’s always about what we want to put on the trophy in the case.
“He brought us to the case. We saw what we wanted to see. Whatever we want to put on the trophy, we can do it, I think.”