EVERETT — On the football field, Ben Hines is the human equivalent of a heat-seeking missile.
The hard-hitting Archbishop Murphy linebacker has the smarts to accurately diagnose a play and devise a pre-snap plan of attack. He possesses the speed, athleticism and vision to elude blockers and track down ball carriers with bee-line efficiency. And his strength allows him to finish plays with a mix of sure-handed tackles and punishing blows.
Hines, a junior, showcased it all this fall while spearheading a stifling defense that allowed a season total of 44 points during the Wildcats’ dominant run to their first-ever Class 2A state title.
The 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker finished with 100 total tackles in the team’s nine-game, forfeit-shortened campaign — good for an eye-popping average of 11.1 tackles per game. He averaged 13.8 tackles in the Wildcats’ four state playoff contests, including a season-high 16 in the state title game. He also finished the year with 11 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
For his standout season, Hines is The Herald’s 2016 All-Area Defensive Player of the Year.
“To have 100 tackles (in nine games), that’s quite an accomplishment,” Murphy head coach Jerry Jensen said, “(especially) when you’re only playing a few quarters in some of those games.
“He’s a tough-nosed, downhill linebacker that has a good nose for the ball. He’s a guy that’s going to seek out contact when necessary, but he also knows how to avoid it to make plays.”
Yet what separates Hines from many other elite defenders is his innate ability to dissect a play prior to the snap.
“(He has a) really, really high football IQ,” Murphy defensive coordinator Josh Jansen said. “He knows what the offense is going to do oftentimes before they know what they’re going to do. … His ability to diagnose a play is second to none.”
Added Jensen: “A lot of times you’ll hear Ben call out the offense’s play (before the snap), and the offense ends up running that play. So he’s just a really smart kid that does his homework.”
Hines, this year’s Cascade Conference Defensive MVP, said that much of his pre-snap play diagnosis has come naturally to him ever since he began playing linebacker in seventh grade. “I kind of just had a natural reading system that I could know where the ball is going,” he said.
But it also stems from relentless preparation. Hines estimates he spends eight hours per week studying film of the upcoming opponent. That total rose to 14 hours in the week leading up to last month’s state quarterfinal against Tumwater, which had handed the Wildcats a heartbreaking semifinal loss the year prior.
“My parents and my brothers have always told me how important it is to know your opponent before you face them,” Hines said. “And so I try to know every single thing I can about the team and what their tendencies are — whether they want to hit it up the middle or outside, or if the linemen give away things. I just look at all the little details that eventually lead you to the play.”
Because of his football intelligence, Hines was the quarterback of Murphy’s stellar defense.
“Ben’s the guy that gets everybody set, communicates what defenses we’re in and the checks that may or may not happen, based on the offense that we’re seeing that week,” Jensen said. “So he really is in charge of making sure that our front is aligned and everybody is in the right gaps.”
And it’s no small feat to be the leader of a star-studded, senior-laden unit that included ball-hawking defensive backs Kyler Gordon, Anfernee Gurley and Collin Montez and the smothering defensive line of Abraham Lucas, Jackson Yost, Jesus Echevarria Jr. and Dirk Wilson.
“Playing defense with a bunch of dudes that all have the same mentality — go get the ball carrier — is fun,” Hines said. “I always knew that wherever the ball went, I was going to have a teammate that’s trying to make the same play that I’m trying to make. So it almost became like a competition between each other (over) who’s going to make more plays.”
Similarly, Hines has long been in friendly competition with his two older brothers, Fred and Jake, both of whom played linebacker for the Wildcats.
“They always mess with me and tell me, ‘Wow, you had a bunch of tackles that you missed’ after I had like a 20-tackle game,” Hines said. “That type of thing really drives me and makes me think like, ‘OK, I need to (do) better so they can’t say anything. That’s really motivated me.”
Hines also said that his older brothers were a major reason why he took up linebacker in the first place. After originally playing receiver, running back and defensive back, Hines was presented an opportunity when a linebacker on his seventh-grade team quit.
“They didn’t have a linebacker,” Hines said. “Somebody was like, ‘Who wants to try out for linebacker?’ And I was the only person who raised his hand.”
Hines was a natural at the position, and upon reaching high school, he began earning considerable playing time early in his freshman season. But in the fourth game, Hines suffered a torn tendon in his ring finger that required season-ending surgery. Hines said the injury “put a fire” in him.
“It was rough,” Hines said. “Being a young kid just getting into high school, I hadn’t really experienced high school football very much. Just getting the taste of it provided a hungry feeling for me to get back on the football field. I had this drive … I was like, ‘OK, I got my taste of high school football. Now I’ve got to conquer it.’”
As a result, Hines took to the weight room and added 40 pounds of muscle over the next two offseasons.
“That’s the dedication that he has,” Jensen said. “Someone told him that he had to get bigger, so he goes out and gets bigger. He’s going to work at whatever he thinks is necessary for him to be the best linebacker that he can be.”
Hines bounced back from injury to record 100 tackles last season while starting every game as a sophomore. He then equaled that tackle total this season, despite playing four fewer games.
And most importantly, he helped the Wildcats capture the state title. It’s an accomplishment that carries particularly strong meaning for Hines, who several times watched his older brothers’ teams fall just short of earning the crown.
“I watched every (state-playoff) loss,” Hines. “And I just felt like, ‘When I get here, it’s going to be my turn. And I have to do something about it.’”
Hines did just that, and in the process he compiled an exceptional season.
“He has a couple of (coaches) that have played (linebacker) and look at it with pretty stringent eyes,” said Jensen, who was an All-Pac-10 linebacker at the University of Washington before playing two seasons in the NFL. “So he doesn’t get praise for just any old effort out there.
“He has to do something pretty spectacular, and he does that on a regular basis.”