There are so many underclassmen on the Denison defense that some leadership needed to emerge from the few holdover starters.
If the Yellow Jackets were going to not only maintain the success from 2016, which saw the program make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, but surpasses those goals then the fresh faces were going to need to find someone to follow on a weekly, even daily, basis.
Safety Ty McFail was one of those seniors ready to contribute however needed — on the field and off — to make his final year at Denison a memorable one.
“Just having these young ones, it was staying with them and building their confidence,” McFail said. “If I had faith in them, they’d have faith in themselves. Saturday when we watch film I’ll send messages to keep it rolling and let’s keep progressing each week.”
McFail and his fellow Jacket defenders will look to extend the program’s streak to an unprecedented five victories as Denison travels to Sherman for the 119th Battle of the Ax. In the history of the rivalry, the Jackets have never won more than four straight against the Bearcats, something last year’s outcome was able to match streaks from 1963-66 and 1945-48.
“It’s something that keeps everybody focused and motivated,” McFail said, especially since last year’s 35-30 margin was the closest during the streak and came down to a Sherman throw to the end zone as time expired.
Last season McFail was a second-team all-district selection after totaling 60 tackles, four for a loss, with two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown and three pass break-ups. With only one other senior starter returning — linebacker Mateo Reyes — there was going to be a lot of responsibility for a group that at times has seen four sophomores and a freshman be a part of the first 11.
“He won’t back down from anybody,” Denison head coach Chad Rogers said. “He’s extremely strong. He goes a million miles an hour and he plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
And while he has continued to impress on defense — he is second on the team with 85 tackles (58 solo) to go with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and eight pass break-ups — he has seen more time in his carer on offense as a senior and produced there as well.
McFail has 43 carries for 381 yards and three touchdowns and is coming off his best performance of the season with 19 carries for 122 yards (both of those categories being career highs) against Denton Ryan. He is part of a four-man rotation with classmates Bubba Roberts, Kenny Gaffney and junior DeCurious Smith that has been as deadly as it has been diverse. The quartet has combined for 290 carries for 1,599 yards and 20 touchdowns and 19 catches for 226 yards and three touchdowns.
“I’m going to be on defense all day. I’m here if you all need me,” McFail said. “We have two other backs who can produce. So when I go in on offense, it’s going to be the best I can do on my carries.”
His ability to come through in big moments has come out on both sides of the ball. His 38-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Abilene Wylie broke a tie game and ultimately provided the deciding points.
His 74-yard touchdown run after a scoreless first quarter against Denton opened the floodgates to a big win.
He had two touchdowns in the season-opening victory against Trinity Christian-Addison, including the first catch of his career — a 22-yard TD on fourth down — and the game-winning touchdown with just under two minutes left.
The defense he spearheads has been one of the best Denison groups in the past decade. The Jackets notched their first shutout since 2008 when they blanked Denton Braswell two weeks ago and on the season have held six opponents to 24 points or less — the highest total since the 2009 state semifinalists.
McFail also contributes on special teams and has generally found himself in the middle of what has turned out to be the first back-to-back playoff trips since he was in middle school.
“He understands what we’re trying to do,” Rogers said. “That’s the biggest thing with this whole team, understanding what we are.”