Edmonds-Woodway defensive lineman Tyler McClendon works through a drill during practice on Oct. 11, 2017, at Edmonds-Woodway High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Edmonds-Woodway defensive lineman Tyler McClendon works through a drill during practice on Oct. 11, 2017, at Edmonds-Woodway High School. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

For Edmonds-Woodway football, it’s defense first

The Class 3A 9th-ranked Warriors are powered by a philosophy that focuses on defense.

EDMONDS — Many high school football teams tend to take an offense-first approach when allocating their top-end talent.

It’s a little different at Edmonds-Woodway.

“We really try to load up the defense with our best players, and then just make it work on the offensive side the best we can,” said longtime Warriors coach John Gradwohl, who’s in his 22nd season at the helm.

“We protect our quarterback and tailback on offense, but everybody else is up for defense. If they’re a great athlete and great on either side of the ball, we’ll put them on defense first.”

It’s hard to argue with the results.

Class 3A ninth-ranked Edmonds-Woodway is limiting opponents to just 13.2 points per game this season, marking the fourth time in five years that the Warriors are holding teams to less than 20 points per contest.

During that span, Edmonds-Woodway has compiled a 30-16 record.

“We just have a philosophy that defense is going to keep us in games,” Gradwohl said.

The Warriors (5-1 overall, 3-0 Wesco 3A South) have allowed 13 points or less four times this season, including a season-opening shutout of Jackson.

Edmonds-Woodway is limiting opposing offenses to just 279 yards per game and a mere 4.4 yards per play. Kentwood and 4A second-ranked Woodinville are the only teams that have gained more than 270 yards against the Warriors this year.

“They’re usually the best defense we see, and it’s probably not even close,” Meadowdale coach Matt Leonard said. “There’s death, taxes and Edmonds-Woodway defense. It’s kind of what they do.”

Edmonds-Woodway graduated a pair of defensive standouts from last season in linebacker Abdoulie Jatta and lineman Ali Gaye, who committed to play football at the University of Washington.

But the Warriors returned the rest of their starters on defense, and that experience and continuity has paid off.

“They play as a team and they work together well,” Gradwohl said. “We have a lot of different calls and a lot of different movement that we do, and they all have to do it together or we don’t look good. And our batting average is pretty good on getting our calls correct and executing.”

That thorough knowledge of the system enables Edmonds-Woodway’s defense to play fast.

“A lot of times, you see defenses that are confused by formations or by a play,” Leonard said. “(And) when they don’t exactly know what to do, they play slower.

“But Edmonds-Woodway plays fast on every play because they know their alignment (and) assignment. They line up and they go.”

Warriors defensive coordinator Nick Wood said the unit’s overall speed is particularly beneficial in this era of spread offenses.

“It’s not a bunch of I-formation and Wing-T anymore,” Wood said. “You see something new every week, and having speed definitely helps counteract that stuff.”

Edmonds-Woodway’s defense features a talented all-senior starting secondary. Noah Becker and Salihou Fatty are playing “lights out” at cornerback, Gradwohl said, and Bryan Sarnowski and Niko Cooper are excelling at safety.

Becker has intercepted three passes this season and returned one for a touchdown. Fatty also has an interception-return score for a Warriors team that has forced 12 turnovers.

“When you’re calling plays, it makes things a lot nicer when you have a good secondary like that, because you can be a little more aggressive at times when you want to,” Wood said.

The middle level of Edmonds-Woodway’s defense is highlighted by senior linebackers Carlos Serrano and Dominic Lawrence, the team’s leading tackler.

“They’re both excellent football players,” Wood said. “They’ve got really good speed. They’re not scared to get their nose in there on a blitz, but at the same time they can do a little bit of coverage.”

The Warriors’ defensive line is anchored by seniors Tyler McClendon and Tyler McAtee.

“They’re extremely disciplined (and) they both are really high-motor guys,” Wood said. “They’re not the biggest guys in the world, but if you watch it on tape, there’s no plays off. They’ll chase you down sideline to sideline.”

Edmonds-Woodway’s defense often breaks huddles by yelling “swarm,” a fitting word for a unit that frequently smothers opposing offenses.

“We’ve got playmakers all around,” McClendon said. “We’ve got so many playmakers (that) it’s hard to really point out which guys make the play when you’ve got nine to 10 guys (swarming the ball).”

Wood said the defense thrives on that type of “unit mentality.”

“Everyone’s just accountable,” Wood said. “Everyone does their job, and they trust that the guy next to them is doing their job.

“When you’re playing defense, that’s what you’re looking for.”

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