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Unity football players, from left, Jared Routh, Logan Wilson and Cooper Reed in Tolono on Monday Sept. 16, 2019. All three have served as integral parts of a Rockets defense that's allowed just 21 points in its first three games.R

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TOLONO — Why is the Unity football defense working so well three weeks into the 2019 season?

Why do the Rockets, who permitted an average of 22 points per game en route to a 4-5 record last year, already boast a pair of shutouts and just 21 points allowed entering Friday’s 7 p.m. home game with rival St. Joseph-Ogden at Hicks Field?

Senior Logan Wilson isn’t afraid to give his new position group a bit of credit for those statistics.

“Our D-line’s been playing tough,” Wilson said. “It’s really helped our linebackers. Like Cooper Reed has just loved playing linebacker this year ... because he’s had such great holes to scrape out of.”

It’s worth noting Wilson was standing next to a Reed when the defensive lineman uttered this thought.

“It’s been so easy for him,” Wilson finished with a smile.

Unity (2-1, 2-1 Illini Prairie Conference) certainly has made it look easy to shut down opposing offenses ahead of hosting SJ-O (3-0, 3-0).

One of those was Prairie Central’s, which never produced fewer than 20 points in 10 games last campaign and put up totals of 42 and 28 over Weeks 1 and 2 this season before Unity won 22-0 last Friday night.

“I thought we would be successful defensively against those teams,” said defensive coordinator Dave Fink, also referencing a 41-0 shutout of Pontiac in Week 2. “I wasn’t anticipating necessarily a shutout, especially against Prairie Central. They’re a difficult team to defend.”

The easiest item to point to with the Rockets’ improved defense is veteran leadership. Fink estimates he returned seven or eight starters from last season’s outfit. Senior defensive back Jared Routh noted Unity boasted just one such defender entering the Rockets’ 2018 slate.

“Getting on a varsity field is totally different from a JV or a freshman (game),” said Wilson, a former linebacker with the Rockets. “They hit harder. It’s a faster pace of game, and just getting that one year (of) experience makes a huge difference.”

With that comes the realization among Unity’s athletes just how exactly they need to react during each and every play.

“Last year, everyone was trying to do everybody else’s job, and that just didn’t work out,” Reed said. “This year, everybody (is) doing their job.”

Part of all 11 Rocket defenders’ duties is staying attached to the pigskin like Velcro.

“They’ve been very good at pursuing to the ball,” Fink said. “We’ve always made the idea that we want to have 11 men in the picture at the end of the play.”

And that mentality isn’t all talk from the Unity coaching staff, which includes former Champaign Central and Judah Christian coach Nate Albaugh among assistants working on coach Scott Hamilton’s staff.

“If we don’t sprint to the ball or run to the ball,” Routh said, “Coach Albaugh makes us do up-downs or run if we’re not one of the first five there.”

One extra facet to the Rockets’ defensive corps is its wrestling ties. Sixteen athletes — including the entirety of the starting front line — works or has worked with Unity coach Logan Patton in the winter.

Encapsulating these on-field focal points is the reality the Rockets are coming off their first season since 1993 without a playoff appearance.

“Truthfully, the kids have a fairly short memory,” Fink said. “Last season’s over. There’s nothing we can do about it, and everything they’ve done has been focusing on trying to improve this season.”

Short memory, however, doesn’t mean no memory. That’s true even for the wise-cracking Wilson.

“It’s really just left a bad taste in our mouth,” he said. “We kind of had it under our skin this year that we weren’t going to let it happen (again), and we were going to play hard no matter what.”

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).