Going into the season, Justin Koch seemed to have the entire weight of the defensive front on his shoulders.
He was the only player with any significant playing time for the front seven.
That experience was never more vital than in Greenwood’s biggest games of the year when the Bulldogs beat Southside and Conway in successive weeks late in the regular season.
“When we needed him to play big, he’s played big,” Greenwood head coach Rick Jones said. “He’s been a very productive player at a position that you have to be pretty special player to make plays.”
Against Conway, the Wampus Cats faced a second-and-4 from Greenwood’s 33 early in the fourth quarter with Conway leading 21-17. Koch and Jordan Green crashed through the line and made the defensive play of the year so far for the Bulldogs when Green sacked Conway quarterback Breylin Smith and forced a fumble, which Koch recovered.
Greenwood took over and Kevin Jones kicked a 35-yard field goal that pulled the Bulldogs within one at 21-20. After Conway missed a field goal on its next possession, Greenwood won the game on Jones’ 23-yard field goal with 2.3 seconds left.
The week before, Greenwood had just thrown an interception against Southside with the score tied 42-42 with 3:11 left to play. Koch snuffed out a draw play and dropped Southside running back Quincy Whitfield for loss. On the next play, Koch sacked Rebel’s quarterback Isaac Jackson for a loss of 10 yards. Southside punted a play later and Greenwood drove to the 45-42 win on Jones’ 23-yard field goal as time expired.
Koch played right tackle on offense last season for the first seven games before finding a permanent home at defensive end.
“We put him at tackle, but he has a defensive mentality, that’s the main thing,” Jones said. “Some guys and their personalities and they’re wired for defense. Some are wired for offense. Some are wired for both. He has a defensive mentality. By nature, he’s aggressive. By nature, he enjoys mixing up with people and enjoys being down there in the trenches.”
Koch led the Bulldogs in tackles against Southside with 11, including four for lost yardage and a sack. Against Conway, he had nine tackles, including one for lost yardage and the fumble recovery.
“Our down guys, like a lot of teams, are occupiers,” Jones said. “They occupy space and they occupy blockers so the linebackers can make plays, but he’s been a playmaker in his own right.”
In addition to making the switch from offense to defense, Koch also had to learn the defensive end position as the four technique.
“The four technique means you’re between the guard and tackle, whereas if you’re a five technique you are primarily on the tackle,” Jones said. “In a four technique, you have the tackle and the guard to deal with. It’s difficult to play and it takes some practice to get used to.”
Greenwood finished the regular season 10-0 and romped past Little Rock Fair, 49-7, last week in the first round of the 6A State Playoffs. Koch and the rest of the Bulldogs were at their best against Southside and Conway, both upper echelon 7A schools.
“Those were really fun — big games, big crowds and great atmospheres to play in,” Koch said. “Southside, it was a rivalry and it’s always close. They’re a really good team so I know I had to do my best. Conway, they’re very physical. They’ve got the biggest O-line in the state. They’re really big. It was going to be won in the trenches.”
To handle the offensive lines of Conway and Southside, which are generally regarded as the biggest and strongest in 7A, the defense had better have some tough guys.
“You better have three tough guys, or four or five or six tough guys on that defense because they’re going to check out your manhood,” Jones said. “Both teams started out just running right at us. We’re not the biggest defense, front seven, in the world. The thing that I was so impressed with on Friday night after Conway took it right down the field was our guys kept fighting, scratching and clawing and found a way to stop those guys enough because our offense was struggling.”
Those two weeks are perfect examples of why Koch was suited for the switch from offense to defense.
“It’s more physical, and I like tackling people,” he said.