TUSCOLA — Dalton Hoel knows on any given Friday night, he gives up at least a few inches of height to opposing receivers.
Not that the 5-foot-7 Tuscola senior cornerback is much bothered by it.
Hoel is still a premier ball-hawking cornerback with enough trust from coach Andy Romine to go one-on-one with opposing star wideouts.
That confidence was rewarded when Hoel produced seven interceptions for the Warriors last season with a whopping four of them going back for touchdowns.
Getting picked on by opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks because of his height is a small price to pay for the ability to go streaking down the sideline on an interception return for a touchdown — especially at home.
“That's the best feeling,” Hoel said. “When you see nothing but the end zone, and we have an amazing crowd out there every night, and you hear the crowd and sidelines are going crazy. There's no better feeling.”
Hoel and Monticello's Johnny Dawson are among the area's best ball-hawking players.
Dawson picked off five passes last season while battling a lingering ankle injury and often giving up some height himself — he's 6-feet tall.
For each of their respective teams, they accomplish the same task: Shut down opposing receivers, and in turn, the passing game. The skill set is a relative rarity in high school football.
Both battled nerves when their coaches put them on an island — going one-on-one with a wide receiver with no safety help over the top — but have come to embrace the role as they enter their senior seasons.
“Sophomore year against Maroa, it was like a 6-6 game and I was out there against (Parker Barrett), one of the conference's best receivers,” Dawson said. “It was a freaking battle, and yeah, I was super nervous. It was kind of fun at the same time. In those kinds of moments you really gain confidence.”
They've made the most of their physical skills as they've progressed through high school, leaning on the mental skills that come along with playing the position along with the trust in their coaches.
Hoel feels the trust from Romine when he gets his task to stop the best on the other side of the ball; the same way Dawson feels the trust in Monticello head coach Cully Welter.
“When coach first put me on the island, it was a really great feeling to show that he believed in me," Hoel said. "That's all a kid really needs. You tell a 15-, 16- or 17-year-old kid that they believe in you and that will go a long way.”
Both corners are different, but not radically different.
Dawson is physical at the line of scrimmage, with an affinity for throwing his receiver off before he gets a head of steam. He jams them at the line of scrimmage, something that he's done more and more since his sophomore season.
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“Often times, you're not comfortable at the high school level having anybody play on an island,” Welter said. “We really have, for the most part, felt confident in his ability to do that. Sometimes we have to remind him of situations because it's not always a personal battle.”
The personal battles are when Dawson flies too close to the sun, playing too physical at times — physicality is his M.O.
“I like to play up at the line of scrimmage when playing man-to-man (defense),” Dawson said. “I want the chance to disrupt their route and determine the play versus playing off and guessing the route or watching their hips.”
Not all of Dawson's interceptions are pretty, Welter said, but each can take an opposing team out of its rhythm, much like in last season's Class 3A state quarterfinal win against Farmington.
Dawson, and his cohorts in the defensive backfield, slowly drained the morale of the Farmers with five interceptions — two from Dawson.
While Dawson likes to chip receivers at the line of scrimmage, Hoel has to turn his lack of height from a disadvantage into an advantage.
He finds ways to slow receivers down without them even noticing that he's doing it.
Those skills caught Romine's eye pretty quickly when Hoel started every game midway through his freshman season.
“The one thing that I'll tell you that he has this uncanny knack of doing is that when he's got a guy going vertical, he does a fantastic job of working on top of him,” Romine said. “Then he slows himself down, which forces that kid's feet to slow down, then he can accelerate to balls. He does things on a football field that I've never seen kids do and stuff that you maybe talk to kids about, but they can never figure out how to do it.”
Over time, teams familiar with Hoel have stopped picking on him for his height; they've learned better of it.
But his height does impact him. He doesn't want to turn anything into a jump-ball situation, because those odds don't always fall in his favor.
But in Hoel, Romine sees a player who can win any jump-ball situation because his “uncanny ability to time a jump.”
Hoel admits there are times when he is sprinting down and knows there's nothing he can do, but he sticks to his plan and hopes for the best.
“I want to not make it a jump ball,” Hoel said. “It's all about timing. If you jump at the right time, you could out-jump a kid.”
Both teams, Monticello in Class 3A and Tuscola in Class 1A, are returning from postseason runs that saw each team at least get to the state quarterfinals last season.
With the return of Hoel and Dawson, both teams appear locked down in the secondary.