Ask any football coach and he will tell you the success of his defense begins with the play of the defensive line. That group’s ability to disrupt the offense at the point of attack is a key to slowing the opponent. Potomac Falls’ third-year head coach Jason Allen is blessed with a talented trio of seniors to lead his defensive line.
Malik Crowe and Dondrea Tillman have started together since they were sophomores and Josh Dorsey became a mainstay on the line last season, giving the Panthers a strong group to rely on up front. “It all starts up front on the offensive line and defensive line,” Allen said. “They’re special people. They don’t get the glory of touchdowns or interceptions, but they’re the ones who control the game.”
Crowe, Tillman and Dorsey have helped lead Potomac Falls to a 2-1 start this fall as three of nine seniors that regularly start on defense. The unit struggled a bit as Broad Run handed the Panthers a 28-7 defeat in the season opener, but they have been much better the past two weeks in victories over rival Dominion (7-6) and Falls Church (62-14).
The Potomac Falls defense limited Dominion to 172 total yards (92 rushing) and allowed Falls Church to gain just 167 yards (67 on the ground). Individually, Tillman leads the defensive line with 13.5 tackles, including three for loss of yardage, while Dorsey has six tackles, a half-sack and an interception. Crowe adds 3.5 tackles and a half-sack.
Crowe is the leader – both vocally and physically – of the defensive line as he uses his 5-foot-8, 300-pound frame to plug the middle as the nose tackle in the Panthers’ 3-4 set. When an opposing offense lines up in a way Crowe doesn’t expect, he quickly makes sure defensive tackles Tillman (6-3, 270) and Dorsey (5-10, 240) know what changes to make. “You never know what’s going to happen in a game,” Crowe said. “The coaches can only give us so much on a scouting report. When we see something different, we let each other know to go this way or that way. Our ultimate goal is to win that football game, so we do whatever we can to help each other out.” “He’s a very intelligent guy,” Allen said of Crowe, who had 21.5 tackles last season, including 1.5 for loss of yards. “He understands the defense. He has a great football IQ and any type of checks we have, he takes care of it.”
Tillman (a second-team all-Conference 14 selection after recording 41.5 tackles and 9.5 for loss last season) and Dorsey (25.5 tackles in 2014, eight for loss) have developed a special bond with Crowe over the past three seasons that each player says helps them individually be better. “We have a lot of chemistry together,” Dorsey said. “By playing these last three years together, it’s bound us together.” “Even though we get on each other, it’s only to make us better,” Tillman said. “We all go through the same stuff. We’re in here grinding through the sweat and pain, so that’s why we push each other.” “They’re definitely a tight group of friends and have formed a nice little brotherhood,” Allen said. “I’ve always told them they’re the special people, the ones people should emulate. You just do your job, and they’ve kind of bought into that.”
While none of the three linemen have verbally committed to play in college next year, Allen said he is getting serious inquiries about each player. “They’re getting solid looks from schools,” Allen said. “We took them to a couple of one-day camps over the past summer to get them some exposure. Why somebody won’t take a chance on them, I’d have no idea. They’re great players with great speed and great instincts. You can teach technique, but that instinct is tough and they all have it.” Allen took over a program in 2013 that had not enjoyed much success since a Group AA Division 4 playoff victory in 2008. The Panthers quickly learned their coach had a no-nonsense plan to turn things around in a hurry.
“The whole program changed,” Crowe said. “We were known as kind of a joke, and when he got here, it was all jokes aside. It was time to get serious and down to business. We weren’t used to the morning lifting, the three- or four-hour practices. When he got here, it got into a serious mood and that’s what we needed.
“That brought us together as a family and brothers,” Crowe added. “Before, we were just a bunch of individuals. The whole attitude and mood changed when he got here, which has made us get better and better.”
Potomac Falls won four games and made the postseason in the expanded 16-team Group 5A North Region that first season, then the Panthers won six games and were the No. 9 seed in last season’s playoffs. This year, the players feel they’re ready to take that next step to gaining a playoff victory.
“We just have to grind it,” Dorsey said. “We have to grind it in practice and on the field. We have to finish games.” “"It takes a lot of confidence,” Tillman said. “You have to be confident about your team, that you can go to war with anyone on your team. If you have confidence, you’ll be fine.” “Confidence is big,” Crowe said. “Two years ago, when we found out we were playing Briar Woods, we were scared. We hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 and to face Briar Woods, coming off a state championship, we came in scared. Last year, our confidence built up a little more and we had too much confidence and overlooked Wakefield, which kind of bit us in the butt. This year, our coaches told us to stay humble, play together as a team and the scoreboard will take care of things from there.” “We take it one week at a time," Allen said. "Last year, we kind of took making the playoffs for granted, which we learned we can’t do. With our strong conference and a solid non-conference schedule, we have to take them one game at a time. We have to bring our ‘A’ game every week. As long as we do that, it will prepare us for the playoffs.”