By ARMANDO GARZA
Special to the NEWS
RIO HONDO – Need proof of just how good of a defense the Rio Hondo Bobcats have this season?
Look at the numbers: 172 yards allowed per game (tops in the Valley), 30 forced turnovers (including 22 fumbles) and nearly 80 sacks as a unit in 10 regular season games.
If that’s not enough, you can always ask around.
“When you play Rio Hondo, it’s gonna be tough and they’re gonna hit you,” one 16-4A Division-II coach said.
“They have the toughest defense we faced this season,” said another.
The Bobcat defense, long a staple of stability under head coach Rocky James, has indeed been spectacular throughout the season. Rio Hondo (8-2 overall) faces its biggest challenge yet when it takes on the Cuero Gobblers (8-2) in their Class 4A Division-II bi-district playoff game in Corpus Christi on Friday night.
“It’s really hard to say,” James said when asked to pinpoint the reason for the success of the defense. “They just really care about playing defense and go hard every single play, especially in practice. They take a lot of pride in what we do, which is stopping people. They WANT to be the best.
It’s not just these guys. We have a lot of guys who come in and get reps all over our defense.”
The unit, comprised of arguably the best front seven in the Valley, may not have the household names of Bobcats past, but they’re just as salty.
Up front, defensive linemen Isaiah Heredia, Mike Lozano, Mando Luna and Albert Magallanes provide the first line of defense—literally.
Magallanes has been a menace to opposing offenses all season. The junior notched 75 total tackles, a team-best 20 sacks and 13 QB pressures, and recovered three fumbles this season.
And he certainly wasn’t alone. Heredia (72 total tackles, 12 sacks, 8 QB pressures, 3 forced fumbles, 1 recovery, 1 interception) is also a force up front along with Lozano (72 total tackles, nine sacks along with team-high four fumble recoveries) and Luna (52 total tackles, 12 sacks, recovered fumble for TD).
“Our front seven has pretty much dominated for us,” James said. “And it starts with our D-line. They set the tone up front and give our linebackers chances to go and make plays. Against a good team like Orange Grove, we were able to get good pressure without blitzing, just sending those four guys.”
True to form, a talented trio of linebackers, led by Roel Benitez, Daniel Flores and Ethan James reap the benefits of all of that success before them.
Flores has been the leader of the group since last season, when many on the Bobcat stoppers were taking their lumps as sophomores. Flores is as good as there is in the business, as shown by his 92 total tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles.
“Daniel’s been the leader and the main guy in the middle,” Rocky James said.
As Flores mans the middle, Benitez has racked up some serious stats as well. On the year, the senior has 94 total tackles, three sacks and has become a tackling machine. James’ son Ethan dons his dad’s old number 32 and has turned in a great sophomore campaign with 53 total tackles, a couple of sacks and two forced fumbles to go with two recoveries.
Against the Gobblers, who are back in the playoffs making noise after a couple of down years, Rio Hondo knows it’ll get a steady dose of the run game, which could play into the Bobcats’ defensive strengths.
“They’re not gonna do anything fancy,” Rocky James said. “They’re gonna run the football and try to run it at us. If our defense can hold its ground and gang-tackle, we’ll be in good shape.”