Naperville North senior linebacker Nick Lifka felt strange when a play ended without his presence this season.
Wherever the ball was, he believed he should be there, too.
“I feel like I need to get there or else something could happen,” Lifka said. “It’s more like I want to be there, so my teammates can see me. ‘He’s there every time.’ It’s like a leadership thing.”
Fortunately for Lifka and his fellow Huskies, he didn’t let them down often. With 168 tackles this season, the 6-2, 245-pound Likfa dominated the game unlike any other defensive player in the area, which is why he’s the ESPNChicago.com Defensive Player of the Year.
Lifka was so successful at being one with the ball that his coaches even lost sight of what he was actually doing.
“When you watch the film, at the time, I felt bad for Nick,” Naperville North coach Sean Drendel said. “We were like, ‘Oh, he should have made that play’, or ‘He could have made that tackle,’ and you look at the stat sheet and he has 17 tackles. Our expectations for him were outrageous. He’s just a heck of a football player.”
Lifka, a dominant linebacker throughout this career, had one area he wanted to work on this season. He led Naperville North in tackles the last three seasons, compiling 373 tackles in his career, but he’d never made an interception at the high school level.
Heading into the season, he had two interceptions in his entire football career. One when he was playing defensive line at an early age, and the other at linebacker in second grade.
Lifka concentrated this season on seeing the entire field, instead of just focusing on the one player he was covering on a particular play. His alteration led to an interception against Wheaton North and then another later in the playoffs against York.
“I have four interceptions in my career,” Lifka said, laughing. “It was a good feeling to get two this season. It was one of my goals.”
Lifka was better at breaking up the pass this season, but his strength continued to be tracking down the player with the ball and putting that person not so gently on the ground. There wasn’t a game this season where he had less than 10 tackles. He had 18 against Glenbard North. Twice, he had 19.
All together, Lifka had 113 solo tackles, 55 assists, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
“Obviously, his physical strength is quite visible,” Drendel said. “More than anything, he has a great knack at getting off blocks and not getting blocked. He really smells the football. I don’t know if that’s taught or not. He’s obviously played a lot of football and has a great ball sense.”
Lifka credited his success this season to his growth in the mental aspect of the game as much as the physical one.
“My knowledge of football is growing,” said Likfa, who will play at Boston College next season. “It’s made it a lot easier. I’m noticing the little things in film and sort of picking them up in the game.
“I didn’t notice it before, but I was a lot closer to the ball this year. I saw it on film compared to my sophomore and junior year. I don’t want to sound self-confident or gloating, but it made me feel really good I could get to the ball like that.”
Drendel expected nothing less.
“Anytime you have a three-year star, he has a full understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Drendel said. “He has full understanding of what’s in front of him and what’s going to happen. I thought what he did this year was he had a greater knowledge of what the other team was doing.
“When you put those three things, you have a phenomenal season.”