Urbana defensive end Jude Merkel formed quite a tandem with strongside end Colton Kmetz, so he never realized just how difficult it was to contain the 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior. But during a late-season practice, Merkel, who doubled as a tight end, lined up on offense while Kmetz took his place on the scout team defense. At the snap, the big defensive end with the deadly bull rush barreled through Merkel and another blocker like scissors through tissue paper.
"We couldn't do anything against him," Merkel said. "He blew us up. I'm glad I'm not the one that has to normally block him."
Yes, Kmetz was a death knell to opposing offensive linemen last season, a terror who fought through double - and sometimes triple - teams as he wreaked havoc in opposing backfields. He finished the season with 9.5 sacks, over 20 tackles for loss and a spot on the Consensus All-State Team.
"He's the best kid I've ever coached on the defensive line," said Urbana coach Ryan Hines. "I was at McDaniel (Westminster) in their heyday and he could go there and start right now. Offensive coordinators had to game plan just to stop him."
Kmetz' height alone makes him an imposing physical presence. That said, many tall high school players tend to be awkward, but not Kmetz. The Urbana defensive coaches laud Kmetz' flexibility in his hips and legs, which allows him to move effortlessly up and down the line of scrimmage.
He also has a long, lean frame, but his lanky looks belie his true strength. When Kmetz gets under a tackle's pads, it's over.
Perhaps most impressive are Kmetz' arms, which are so long he can practically stand straight up and still tie his shoes. In fact, it's those arms that make Kmetz such an effective pass rusher.
"My defensive line coach taught me how to use my arms to my advantage," Kmetz said. "At first I extend them straight out to get room from the tackles. Then once I see if it's a pass I can throw the guy with an uppercut move. If it's a run, I can push the tackle back even farther until I get the tackle or collapse the pocket."
Every sack artist has a signature move, from Dwight Freeney's spin move to Osi Umenyiora's "strip-sack" move to Jared Allen's bull rush. Kmetz has the uppercut.
He explodes out of his stance and swings his arms like a crane ball on the ascent. More often then not, he strikes a direct hit to the left tackle's ribcage, a momentary blow that knocks the blocker off the ball. That's all Kmetz needs to get a step, fire inside and sack the quarterback.
"He just stands [opposing linemen] up," Hines said. "He can get after it."
Of course, Kmetz benefited from having Merkel at weakside end (and vice versa). Teams couldn't effectively double team one or the other; those that did were in for a rude awakening.
Together, the two cogs combined for more than 20 sacks last year, with Merkel holding a slight edge over Kmetz. Now, Hines preaches unselfish play, and the coaches stress how individual totals mean nothing. But don't think for a second Merkel and Kmetz didn't know how many sacks each other had.
"We had a little competition going to who could get the most sacks," Merkel said. "It sort of drove us. He'd always get mad when I got a sack and he couldn't get one. We were always going at it."
Kmetz is guilty as charged.
"Yeah, he beat me there with the sacks," Kmetz admitted. "But I got him in tackles for loss."
Plenty of athletes challenge one another, but Kmetz' competitive fire burns even when he's not on the field. Last offseason, for example, Hines staged a contest. He posted a running tally of who attended the most weight-lifting sessions, the winner earning the respect of coaches and teammates.
Kmetz was determined to win, but so was the Hawks' quarterback, Michael Spahr. The two were neck-and-neck all offseason, but Kmetz refused to lose. Even when he played lacrosse in May, Kmetz would come in after practice just to get in 45 minutes of lifting.
"By then I realized how much of a competitor he was," Hines said. "When he puts his mind to something, he gets it done."
All that extra lifting paid off when Kmetz was pitted against the strongest linemen he'd ever faced. In the state championship game against Wise's stellar line, Kmetz showed off his pass-rush savvy.
On third down from just outside their own 10-yard line, Wise quarterback DeAndre Smith took the snap and momentarily bobbled the ball. Kmetz beat his man with a nifty straight arm-stunt move as he zeroed in on Smith, who started to scramble. But Kmetz wrapped Smith up before he could escape, dropping the elusive quarterback right outside the end zone.
"That was a huge play; it gave us some momentum," Merkel said. "That was probably the best line we faced, and it was hard to get any pressure at all. And Colton made a great play against one of the fastest quarterbacks I've every played against."
While sacks are the most visible, definable stat for defensive ends, they're hardly the most important. Nor are they what Kmetz does best, according to Hines. Rather, Kmetz excelled at busting up double teams and freeing up his teammates to make stops.
"No one could single-block him," Hines said. "He'd take on the tackle and the guard and then he'd blow up the fullback, which would allow a linebacker to come free."
But sometimes Kmetz didn't need that linebacker to make the tackle. Hines remembers when Urbana played Key; their blockers were so overmatched that Kmetz beat the tackle, the guard and the fullback for a sack even though Urbana had just three down-linemen.
"Yeah, there were times he'd still make the tackle by himself, even after taking down three guys," Hines said.
That wasn't a weekly occurrence, however. There were a few times last year where Kmetz was neutralized by stronger, more athletic linemen who simply beat his body up.
Kmetz even admits he needs to "get way stronger" in order to surpass his 2010 totals and to fulfill his college football dreams. Apparently coaches from the ACC and Big East are looking at him, but Kmetz will need to bench more than 220 pounds and squat more than 290 to play at those schools.
"I can usually beat most guys with my speed, but to play in college I need both speed and strength," Kmetz said.
Recruiters aren't the only ones looking for marked improvement. Next year, Hines expects even more out of Kmetz, even though his partner-in-crime, Merkel, will graduate this spring.
In a way, Kmetz is a victim of his own success. He raised the bar last year with his all-state accolades. Now, anything less than a repeat of 2010 will be seen as a disappointment.
"I need more sacks, more tackles for loss and I want an interception, too. I don't have the best hands in the world, so maybe I'll catch a screen pass or something," Kmetz said, chucking. "Either way, I have to go out and prove myself again. I'm ready for the challenge."