Crespi defense creates a buzz

Crespi defense creates a buzz
Crespi cornerback Lonnel Jones has become a true standout after a year of transition when he transferred. (Anne Cusack / LAT)

Defensive coordinator Joe McLaughlin expects his Encino Crespi players to act like a bunch of crazed bees.

"We swarm," cornerback Lonnel Jones said. "If we don't swarm, we'll get in serious trouble."

McLaughlin makes his defensive unit repeat his "Swarm Drill" during practice if he doesn't see all 11 players charging toward the ball. And he expects their hits to sting.

"We come out every day with a chip on our shoulder and just hit," Jones said.

In the last two weeks, starting quarterbacks for Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and Long Beach Millikan have been knocked out of games by Crespi hits.

The Celts (9-2) have played one of the toughest football schedules in the Southland. They have faced all-star running backs Milton Knox of Lake Balboa Birmingham, Ryan Bass of Corona Centennial and Darrell Scott of Ventura St. Bonaventure. They gave a concussion to standout quarterback Dayne Crist of Notre Dame.

So don't expect Crespi to be intimidated or to feel in awe with the assignment of taking on Santa Ana Mater Dei (9-1) and its talented junior quarterback, Matt Barkley, on Friday night in a Southern Section Pac-5 Division quarterfinal playoff game at Santa Ana Stadium.

Celts defenders fear no one. They shut down Knox and Birmingham, 20-6. They beat Scott and St. Bonaventure, 25-9. And they routed Notre Dame, 23-3.

"Each week is a fun challenge to see how well we're going to play together," defensive lineman Julian Fields said.

Mater Dei has few weaknesses on offense. Its line has given up only four sacks all season. Its receivers, as a group, could be the best in the Southland when it comes to consistently catching passes. And Barkley is on his way to becoming the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation for the Class of 2009, having passed for 3,250 yards and 32 touchdowns.

But Crespi's defense has the speed, athleticism and experience to match the Monarchs position for position. The secondary is the team's strength, and the biggest surprise has been Jones, who transferred last year from Van Nuys Montclair Prep after the school went from 11-man to eight-man football.

"You could say they hit harder and run faster," he said of the Pac-5 Division.

After a year of transition, he has become a true standout. Twice he has returned kickoffs for touchdowns. Twice he has returned interceptions for touchdowns.

He was the player who stripped the ball from Birmingham's Knox in the season opener, leading to a decisive 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown. He was the player who gave Crist his concussion two weeks ago.

"I love to hit," Jones said.

Cornerback Spencer Chapman and super-quick safeties Mark Watley and Jeremiah McKibbin fill out the secondary. Austin Shanks, another speedster, has four interceptions helping out at defensive back.

"By far, I think we have the best secondary in the Valley, if not the state," Jones said. "We're all veterans, we're all fast, we're all physical and we swarm."

Then there's UCLA-bound E.J. Woods, who plays outside linebacker and is allowed to roam the field at will. Linebackers Chris Carter and Lucky Radley can run too. And the 305-pound Fields and the 290-pound Karim Williams are imposing linemen.

Defensive players receive special T-shirts with a muscular bee featured in the middle when they perform well. It's a reward and a reminder of what's expected of them.

Third-year Coach Jeremiah Ross took over for Troy Thomas when he left for Anaheim Servite and has continued to elevate the program, aided by fast, athletic skill-position players with fearless attitudes.

"Our defense," Ross said, "is about swarming and being physical."