Last season, amid plenty of ways to credit the Derby Panthers, one with a simple message stood out.
“That Derby defense.”
The 2018 Derby defense is regarded as the best in school history. The Panthers held 10 of their 13 opponents to a touchdown or less. They had two shutouts, and it would have been more if the starters stayed in past halftime every Friday night.
Derby held the defending Class 5A champion to six points. It beat one-loss Topeka 38-7 in the state quarterfinals and one-loss Manhattan 24-6 in the semifinals. The Panthers even held All-American quarterback Graham Mertz and Blue Valley North to 16 points in a 24-16 state title victory.
So heading into the 2019 season, the question was obvious. How can this year’s Derby defense compare?
The Panthers are providing the answer: just fine.
Derby beat Bishop Carroll 21-0 Friday, handing the Golden Eagles their third shutout since 2000 and first since 2010.
Wichita Heights was the last team to shut out Carroll — in Week 1 of that year, and by the same score. Heights finished 13-0 and won the Class 6A state championship. Friday night, Derby showed it’s more than capable of repeating as an undefeated state title-winner.
On Derby’s second possession of the game, senior quarterback Grant Adler fired down the seam for senior tight end Jacob Karsak. The ball sailed, and Carroll senior safety Dalton Nichols soared for the interception. He returned it inside the Derby 20 yard line.
The Derby defense forced a field goal attempt, and Carroll missed. That came with 2:32 left in the first quarter. It was the closest Carroll came to points all night.
A few minutes later, Adler crossed the goal line for the first points of the game. That was all Derby needed.
“I’m very proud of our defense,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said. “A lot of people said that would be the area we had to work on most. In this game, it’s there. They kept us in the game. To hold a team like Bishop Carroll - their offensive lines are amazing - was pretty special.”
Much was made of the prospects of an exciting Derby offense heading into the 2019 season. Adler, a two-time All-Metro pitcher, and Karsak were just two of the biggest pieces. The Panthers also returned All-Metro running back Tre Washington, receivers Cavion Walker, Davin Simms and Reid Liston, and offensive linemen Kevin Washington and Alex Conn, who is verbally committed to Nebraska.
Derby had been held to 21 points at home once since the 2011 season.
Even with the offense sputtering, Derby senior defensive tackle Tyler Dorsey said blanking Carroll was a great feeling.
“We thought we had it from the jump,” Dorsey said. “We knew what we were going to do. They didn’t have that many long drives. We adjusted to it and shut ‘em out.”
Dorsey is an All-Metro candidate. At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, he is one of the most physically dominant players in the Wichita area. He commanded double teams throughout Friday’s victory. Dorsey, like many of the Panthers, is replacing one of the best defensive players to come through Derby.
Last year, defensive end Isaac Keener was named to the Eagle’s All-Metro and Top 11 teams. His blend of speed and power around the edge were big influences on the Derby defense’s dominance last season.
Now at Washburn University, Keener came to the Panthers’ Week 2 game at Salina Central. Dorsey said Keener was in his ear all night.
“I still talk to Isaac a lot,” Dorsey said. “I looked up to him. He was barely older than me, but I looked up to him. At first it was wierd because I’m used to playing with older guys. Now I’m the oldest on the field. I knew we were going to have to put in the work, and we did.”
Derby also lost four linebackers from 2018 — two of them were back for the Panthers’ homecoming game Friday — a pair of safeties and a cornerback.
Hunter Igo was one of those safeties. Igo was thrown into the starting quarterback role last year after Adler suffered a season-ending arm injury against Carroll. He, too, earned All-Metro and Top 11 honors.
Junior Tanner Knox is his replacement.
Knox was everywhere Friday. He capped the night with a game-sealing interception.
“I don’t think there is too big of a chip on our shoulder,” Knox said. “We just do what we do, make our reads and try to be the best we can be.”
Barring a monumental slip-up, Derby should be undefeated heading into its Week 8 game hosting Maize, which reached the Class 5A semifinals last season. The Derby-Maize game decided the AVCTL I championship in 2018 and likely will again.
Winning against Bishop Carroll was massive for the Panthers. Outside of Carroll and Maize, Derby’s regular-season opponents finished with a 19-37 combined record.
“This game for Bishop Carroll and us is a game for film,” Clark said. “It’s a game to exploit your holes and figure out where you need to get better at. ... They’re on a quest for a 5A state championship, and we’re on a quest for a 6A state championship, and this is just part of the journey.”
But pitching a shutout against Carroll was far more important for the Derby defense.
The Derby offense finished with just 288 total yards, one of its lowest outputs in recent years. The Panthers allowed just 127. Carroll quarterback Aiden Niedens went 7-of-20 for just 42 yards. The Golden Eagles ran it 33 times and picked up about 2.5 yards per touch.
The Panthers channeled the 2018 Derby defense Friday night, and that meant a lot to them.
“I looked up to all those guys last year,” Knox said. “Now it’s our time to shine, step up, and show what we can do.”