"We Go With What We've Got" Undersized Linebackers Denny and Jensen Embody Stingy Clear Creek Amana Defense

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Photo by Jeff Yoder

Ryan Murken

Your Prep Sports

TIFFIN – Shortly after his first season leading the Clear Creek Amana program came to an end Gabe Bakker sat with his coaching staff and began planning for the future.

Not surprisingly, one of the first items Bakker wanted to discuss was defense.

After allowing 25.6 points per game and allowing 35 or more points five times during a 3-6 debut season Bakker scanned the list of returning defensive players and saw a change was needed.

“Last year we ran a 4-4 and we had some bigger lineman and when we started our meetings in the winter we looked at our team what it was going to be and we just didn’t have those big linemen but we knew we could run and we could tackle,” Bakker explained. “We went to the 3-4 and changed up our coverages and it’s really been a good thing for us.”

Lacking size across the board Bakker, a former Iowa State defensive back, envisioned a defense designed around speed and pursuit.

Like any good high school coach Bakker built his defense around the talent he had to work with and no players on the Clipper defense are more adept to working with what they’ve got than junior inside linebackers JJ Denny and Grant Jensen.

“We don’t have the physical traits that a normal middle linebacker would have but we just make it work,” Jensen said. “We go with what we’ve got.”

To call Denny and Jensen undersized even for high school middle linebacker standards is being generous.

Regardless of what the program says neither player is taller than 5-foot-9 or weighs 160 pounds.

Calling them good players is understating the impact the duo has had on a suddenly dominant Clear Creek Amana defense.

Denny is the top-tackler and Jensen ranks third in tackles for a defensive unit that has Clear Creek Amana (6-0, 2-0) poised for the biggest game in program history. 

The unbeaten and eighth-ranked Clippers will attempt to go 7-0 for the first time in program history on Friday when they face Davenport Assumption (3-3, 2-0) in a Class 3A District 5 matchup at Clipper Field.

“I didn’t expect anything less,” Denny said of the strong start. “I knew we had the talent it was just if we had the heart.”

Heart is something that has never been lacking for Denny or Jensen.

Both admit they are devoid of many of the physical attributes people look for in a middle linebacker.  

Jensen is the bigger of the two CCA tackling machines at all of 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds.

He is still noticeably bigger than his partner in in the middle of the defense Denny who is 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds.

“We aren’t big, we know that, so we have to be more technical because we don’t have the physical attributes,” Jensen said. “We have to adapt to the bigger players that we come up against. It’s challenging but you learn how to work with it.”

Jensen and Denny both learned some lessons the hard way last season.  

Tossed into the varsity lineup as sophomores both gained valuable experience at how to excel as smaller linebackers.

Denny made a team-high 49.5 tackles last season as a 140-pound sophomore.

“It just comes down to being able to read the line, knowing where to go, knowing how to stay low and not get trucked,” Denny said. “I try to stay low because I know that I can’t take on a big 300-pound lineman so I try to stay out of their way and get to the ball.”

In the Clippers’ newly implemented 3-4 scheme and duo has thrived.

Denny leads the Clippers with 35 tackles including three for loss and has two sacks.

Jensen ranks third on the team with 26.5 tackles, five for loss and two sacks.

“If I’m not there, he’s there,” Denny said. “Most of the time we are both there.”

Bakker doesn’t care about the size of his linebackers he’s more interested in their ability to make plays.

Denny and Jensen are doing plenty of that this season.

“They are just football players,” Bakker said. “They are smart, they understand our defense and really JJ Denny is really the captain of our defense out there.”

Denny and Jensen rely on their speed and quickness to cause problems for opposing offenses.

The duo is fast becoming the perfect embodiment of an undersized but over productive Clear Creek Amana defense.

“They just fly around to the football,” Bakker said. “They make plays, they get off blocks or just avoid blocks and stay in their rush lanes. Both of those guys kind of embody what we do and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

With 323-pound sophomore Arron Feinberg at tackle and sophomore TJ Bollers, a 6-foot-5 235-pound terror at end the Clippers have size up front.

Behind an improved defensive line is a fast, aggressive back seven that has reshaped the CCA defense.

“We don’t have a bunch of big guys, our defensive line has a few big guys but we just have to run around and run to the ball,” Jensen said. “We have to get all 11 guys to the ball and that’s something that we take a lot of pride.”

The results have been impressive.

Clear Creek Amana has already posted three shutouts and has held opponents to seven points or fewer in five of six games.

The Clippers are allowing just 4.8 points per game, down more than 20 points from a season ago.

“If they don’t score you can’t lose, that’s kind of what we say,” Denny said. “We are just all about getting 11 people to the ball with our pursuit. Effort will make up for mistakes.”

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