Special teams huge to Warren's success

  • Plainfield East's Ahmad Elshalakany (17) attempts to punt during the first quarter, but the ball was blocked by Warren's Juan De La Cruz (18), who recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown during the Class 8A football playoffs in Gurnee last Saturday.

      Plainfield East's Ahmad Elshalakany (17) attempts to punt during the first quarter, but the ball was blocked by Warren's Juan De La Cruz (18), who recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown during the Class 8A football playoffs in Gurnee last Saturday. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/6/2019 6:47 PM

The film showed a vulnerability.

So Warren's football coaches pounced.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And by putting a lot of focus on special teams last week in practice, the Blue Devils were able to cruise to a 49-7 first-round Class 8A playoff win over Plainfield East on Saturday.

"We thought Plainfield East was a very talented team, but it seemed on film that they were a little lax in the kicking game," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said. "It's the playoffs and we really focused in on that because we want to do anything we can do at this point to get an advantage."

Warren blocked two punts against Plainfield East, and returned one of those blocked punts for a touchdown.

Jaden Gregerson and Juan De La Cruz each blocked a punt and De La Cruz converted his into a touchdown.

"In my six years here, we had never blocked a punt, and then we got two of them in one game," McNulty said. "Our goal was to really attack in the kicking game, and I think we did that."

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Since 2017, the Blue Devils have put a higher emphasis on special teams, particularly the blocking of kicks.

"We played Bolingbrook in 2017 and we partially blocked a punt in that game and it really changed the whole feel of that game for us," McNulty said. "It really put momentum in our favor. Ever since then, we've really tried to work a lot on our kicking game to establish that."

Big returns: Last season, as the Daily Herald's Lake County All-Area Team Captain, Warren senior Juan De La Cruz was regarded as one of the best defensive players in the area.

The linebacker was the anchor of a stifling Warren defense that recorded 5 shutouts and allowed just 7.6 points per game in 2018.

But De La Cruz's job doesn't end when the defense forces a turnover or a 3-and-out. He is also one of Warren's best punt blockers and returners.

Not only did he block a punt last week against Plainfield East, he was also giving the Warren offense some very good field position with his solid returns.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

De La Cruz doesn't look like your typical returner though. He has some size at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds.

"Most people don't have their linebackers returning punts, but we do because we like our punt returners to be bigger and stronger, guys who can break an arm tackle," McNulty said. "Juan is on almost all of our special teams. He's big and fast and he's really good at it."

Extra rest: The starters for Warren had plenty of downtime during last week's first-round playoff rout of Plainfield East.

As the Blue Devils went up 49-0 in the second quarter, head coach Bryan McNulty began subbing out his starters.

There were no starters in the game just before halftime, and no starters played in the second half.

"Every time a kid is out there, there's the chance he can get hurt so it was nice being able to take some reps off of our starters," McNulty said. "It was also great that we got every kid on our team into a playoff game. It's rare that that happens. We really like that."

McNulty says the quick start by his offense was due to an efficient running attack led by running back Derrick McLaughlin and the veteran play of linemen Ethan McDermott and Jaiden Lowery, who were opening up all kinds of holes for McLaughlin on the left side.

All business: When they were starting as sophomores, there were some understandable bumps in the road.

But now, Warren's most experienced players are seniors and are using their three years of varsity football to keep a level head during the hype of the playoffs.

Willis Singleton, Seamus Mellican, Josh Turner, Matt Rich, Jaiden Lowery and Ethan McDermott have tried to establish a businesslike feel to the Blue Devils' season.

"Our six seniors who are three-year starters are so seasoned and they do a great job of not getting ahead of themselves," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said. "They are about to start their seventh playoff game. They've learned not to take anyone lightly, and they don't. They are always very, very serious.

"When we lost (in the quarterfinals) last year, it was those guys who set the tone right away. They were in the weight room on the very next day because they were so focused on getting back to work for this year."

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