Inspired by the University of Miami’s famed “turnover chain,” the Lake Stevens football team started a new tradition this year. After games, any defender who forced a takeaway would pose for a photo while wearing a steel replica Viking helmet.
Over the course of the season, Kasen Kinchen grew plenty familiar with that coveted piece of headgear.
The lockdown Lake Stevens cornerback, who starred on both sides of the ball this year, intercepted seven passes and returned one for a touchdown while playing a key role in the Vikings’ run to the Class 4A state title game. He broke up 14 passes and frequently shut down the opposing team’s top receiver, helping anchor a defense that allowed just 19 points per game.
For his exceptional junior campaign, Kinchen is The Herald’s 2018 Defensive Player of the Year for prep football.
“He did a lot of great things for us defensively, but it starts with his ability to be a shutdown corner and take the opposing team’s best player away from them,” Lake Stevens coach Tom Tri said.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and Kasen is certainly the top one or two guys we’ve had in the last 20 years of being able to shut down a receiver and force the offense to literally change its game plan.”
Kinchen, a three-star cornerback with a scholarship offer from the University of Oregon, snagged all seven of his interceptions in the first eight games of the season.
The highly regarded 5-foot-11, 165-pound recruit picked off two passes while facing Lincoln’s ultra-talented receiving corps in Week 2 and had three interceptions against Jackson in Week 8, including a tipped ball that he snatched out of the air and returned for a 63-yard touchdown.
“Jackson (threw some) jump balls,” Tri said. “The quarterback was taking a chance that maybe the receiver could go make a play on the ball, and Kasen made them pay.”
As the season went on, Tri said opponents grew more wary of Kinchen and targeted him with less frequency.
“Defenses just didn’t really throw his way any more,” Tri said. “I think they saw on film his ability to go break on balls, and so quarterbacks didn’t take those chances any more throwing it Kasen’s way. They tried to find somewhere else to throw the ball. And again, that’s a credit to him because that’s effectively shutting down (part of) an opposing offense.”
Kinchen’s seven interceptions came in a variety of ways.
On two of his picks, Kinchen blanketed the receiver with textbook positioning and high-pointed a deep pass for a leaping interception. Two more were a product of Kinchen reading the play in zone coverage to position himself for takeaways.
He showcased quick reflexes with a pair of interceptions off deflections, making a diving snag in the end zone to thwart a scoring chance and snatching a tipped ball for the pick-six against Jackson. And on a quarterback rollout in the season opener against Ferndale, Kinchen closed hard on the intended receiver and stepped in front of the pass for an interception.
“He’s a ball-hawker,” Tri said earlier this season. “He reads routes really well, and he can accelerate off his breaks and close that air out as quickly as anyone we’ve had around here in a long time. … By the time the ball comes out, that gap is gone and Kasen is playing the ball.”
In the Vikings’ state quarterfinal win over Graham-Kapowsin, Kinchen played an integral role in limiting nationally ranked quarterback Dylan Morris, star receiver Malaki Roberson and the Eagles’ high-powered offense to just 14 points until late in the fourth quarter.
For much of the game, Lake Stevens moved Kinchen into more of a high-safety position to play bracket coverage on Roberson and prevent big plays over the top. The strategy worked to perfection, with the Vikings holding Roberson to just three catches for 55 yards and Morris to 13-of-29 passing for 200 yards.
“That really kind of took their primary weapon away on offense and forced them to do some things that they weren’t really prepared to do,” Tri said. “That really was the impact-changer for us, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that (without) Kasen.
“That just shows you (his) versatility,” he added. “We were able to kind of move him and put him wherever we wanted to try to take away the other team’s best strengths.”
Tri said Kinchen’s speed and ability to quickly change direction are big parts of what make him such a unique talent.
“He uses his hands very well, so he’s going to re-route you (and) slow you down as you try to get off the line,” Tri said. “But he also can turn his hips as well as any high school player we’ve had in a long time. He can play you close and not give you much of a cushion, and still not get beat over the top.
“He was able to do that time and time again this year, and that’s what has allowed him to kind of shut down other players and force quarterbacks to try to throw somewhere else.”
Kinchen also emerged as a big-play threat on offense this season, catching 50 passes for a team-high 1,051 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He played on both sides of the ball in youth football, but didn’t play offense during his freshman and sophomore years at Lake Stevens. That changed this past offseason, when the coaching staff began incorporating him as a receiver.
Kinchen quickly developed into one of the Vikings’ most dangerous weapons, averaging 21 yards per catch and scoring on six touchdown receptions of 50-plus yards. He excelled at catching deep passes in traffic, and was adept at turning screen passes into big gains.
“He went from not playing a single down of offense last year to being a huge part of what we were doing,” Tri said. “He grew so much on the offensive side of the ball. … He was a huge weapon for us.”
As successful as this season was for Kinchen and the Vikings, it ended on a sour note with a 52-20 loss to Union in the state championship game. Kinchen starred on offense, hauling in nine catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. On the defensive side, he had the challenging task of facing University of Nebraska-bound receiver Darien Chase, a nationally ranked four-star senior recruit who made several big catches in the game.
“It was definitely a great learning experience,” Kinchen said. “It just shows that I need to keep working hard. … The first half I was kind of struggling a little bit, but in the second half I think I did a lot better in kind of containing him. But I need to learn from the mistakes that game so that I can get better.”
Kinchen and the Vikings are just a few weeks removed from their state-title game defeat, but he said they’re already back in the weight room to prepare for what he hopes will be another success-filled season.
“Unfortunately we didn’t come out with the win, but we’re going to be back (next) year,” he said. “We have a lot of returners coming back … We’re all working hard training to get better for next season.”