EDWARDSVILLE — On a defense with four shutouts that has held seven teams to one touchdown or none, there should be some superstar driving his teammates and collecting the headlines.
Instead, the Edwardsville Tigers have a 11-man pain infliction unit that prefers to function as a swarming hornet's nest of aggression.
"We don't have the biggest defense, but I guarantee we have one of the smartest and one of the hardest-hitting," said Tigers' junior middle linebacker Zac Rujawitz, one of eight returning starters from 2012. "It's just fun to be around."
Junior defensive end Jeff Clubb summed up Edwardsville's defensive approach, which shuns individual stardom in search of more victories.
The 12-0 Tigers play host to 11-time state champion Chicago Mt. Carmel (11-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Class 7A semifinals.
"You try to stick to doing your job on the field to help the whole team instead of trying to be out there to have your name called more," Clubb said. "I want to help out the team, not myself."
Edwardsville coach Matt Martin has been around plenty of Division I players, including during his playing career as a tight end at Western Illinois University.
Former Tigers standout Vincent Valentine now plays noseguard at Nebraska. Other Tigers have reached the Division I ranks in recent years, including assistant coach E.J. Jones, Rodney Coe, Joe Allaria, Nick Tarpoff, Milan Woodard and Joe Bevis.
Martin believes Rujawitz, linebacker Curt Mueller, defensive backs D'Anthony Knight and Craig James and possibly others could one day play major college football. But the head coach is more than happy with good, solid players with a nose for the ball and a need to get there in a hurry.
"I'm not criticizing those Division I (coaches), but they're really into measurables," Martin said. "I've had some kids that are very good football players that might not have the measurables that D-1 coaches look for. We've got some very good players, but I don't know if we have that one guy that just stands out week in and week out."
Rujawitz (6-foot, 227 pounds), who leads the team with 80 tackles and also has two sacks, recalled an impact play by Knight earlier this season.
"He's the hardest hitter I've ever seen," Rujawitz said of Knight, who has 40 tackles and four interceptions. "I remember in the Belleville West game, the receiver was running down the sideline. It would have been a first down if he caught it, but 'D' (Knight) came flying across the field and smacked him."
Knight smiled while listening to the story. He has always enjoyed the physical side of the game.
"I'm an aggressive person and I like hitting, so I think it came natural," said Knight, who has earned his coach's respect for damaging offenses, jumping pass routes and sticking to receivers.
"He's a physical tackler and he's good at reading plays," Martin said. "And then when he arrives there to make the tackle, he usually has bad intentions behind it."
Rujawitz, already attracting Division I interest, is the son of former Southern Illinois University Carbondale linebacker Terry Rujawitz.
And while most Edwardsville football stories understandably talk about quarterback Dan Marinko (2,654 yards and 28 touchdowns, plus 17 rushing touchdowns) or receiver Darius Crochrell (60 catches, 845 yards, 14 TDs), this one is about the tone-setting, blue-collar defense.
"They get the ball every play, so they have the statistics," Rujawitz said. "But we know we're doing our job and that's all we worry about."
The 6-foot, 215-pound Clubb is undersized for his position and routinely faces larger blockers, yet has 48 tackles and five sacks.
"He's a junior and I hate saying this because he's not done here yet," Martin said. "But he might go down as one of the best I've ever coached -- and I've coached some good ones. Rarely does he ever get beat.
"He's strong, just quick enough and very smart. He does what he's coached to do. It's that simple, you can count on him being where he's supposed to be."
The same could be said for the entire defense, which also includes linebackers Cameron Throneberry (53 tackles, seven sacks, 18 tackles for loss) and Sean Sandifer (46 tackles, one sack) and defensive backs Brian Crowe (five interceptions) and James (three interceptions).
From the heart of the defense, Rujawitz gets the signals from defensive coordinator Kelsey Pickering and relays them to his teammates.
"I'm just humbled by how great everyone else is," Rujawitz said. "I know our D-line's going to do the job so I don't have to worry about filling a certain gap, and I know our DB's are going to cover the ball, so I'll be able to do my job.
"Without that line I wouldn't be able to do anything that I do."
Pickering demands a lot from his defense, but has no trouble with motivation.
"He basically threatens us that we're going to lose if we have one bad play in practice," Knight said. "He's a perfectionist."
The Tigers run a 3-4 defense with solid defensive ends and linebackers. The secret to their success lies in the simplicity of the approach.
"Usually two things happen when you see a big play, it's a blown assignment or a missed tackle," Martin said. "The game's that simple. The teams that win will be where they're supposed to be, do what they're supposed to do, and they will tackle."