Red Devils ‘Wrecking Crew’ years in the making
Win or lose, linebackers there for each other
Usually, where you find one, you’ll find ‘em all.
You’ll hear that from a coach or two, when they describe the bond that exists — on the field, and off — between the Evanston Red Devils’ senior core of linebackers: Kai Barker, Cohen Morrow, Brady Roberts and Cole Robinette. If one makes a play, the other three are there, slapping him on the back, hyping him up.
If one misses a tackle or blows an assignment, the others are there to pick him up, dust him off and get him back in the game.
And if things get heated — as they sometimes do — and one of the four finds himself outnumbered, well, the odds even out real quick.
Case in point. During the final game of the season last year — a 44-7 win over Green River at Kay Fackrell Stadium — Roberts lit up a Wolves running back like a Christmas tree, right in front of the Green River bench. The running back took exception to the hard — but legal — hit; words were exchanged, a little shoving ensued and it turned into a bit of a scuffle involving most of the Wolves’ bench, with Roberts at the center of it. Photos of the kerfuffle would later show Evanston assistant coaches Roy Barker and Steve Moore pulling Kai, Cole and Cohen out of the middle of the scrum; they had immediately run to Roberts’ defense.
Moore — now in his first season as head coach — isn’t surprised it was the other three seniors he and coach Barker had to pry out of the melee.
“That goes to show they have each other’s backs,” Moore said, laughing. “They’re in the middle of something, they’re going to be right there, helping each other out. That right there just kind of encapsulates the friendship and relationship of those four kids, and how they’ll go to battle for each other.”
A defender’s mindset
All four seniors are also standouts on offense — Morrow is the starting quarterback, Roberts was an All-Conference and All-State selection last season at running back, Robinette plays fullback and Barker is the Swiss Army knife, lining up at wideout, tight end, I-back, you name it. But there’s something about defense that draws them like moths to a flame.
“The part about defense I love most is being able to react to the situation,” Barker said. “I’m not told exactly what to do, and I have freedom to make plays. With offense, we are told more exactly what to do and the intensity isn’t as high.”
Morrow — an All-Conference and All-State selection at linebacker last season — agreed.
“The mindset differs, because on offense, you have to be poised and kind of calm in order to move the ball,” he said. “On defense, you just have to fly around and play like your hair’s on fire.”
For Roberts and Robinette, it’s the hitting that fuels their intensity, and the two of them excel at it.
“On defense I enjoy being able to just fly around and hit people,” Roberts said. “The difference for the mindset on offense is I just need to run through whatever gets in front of me. But on defense, I have to think a little more. As a linebacker, I’m run first; but I also have pass responsibility.”
Robinette said the team feeds off a big hit, and when the four of them are flying around and making things happen, there’s nothing else like it.
“The chemistry when the energy is flowing, and everyone is making plays and hits; there’s no feeling like it — it’s addictive,” he said. “It’s more of a killer mindset. Hitting big can change the game when we are flying around, lighting them up in the backfield and getting pumped up and rowdy — no one wants to play with us. There’s nothing like a huge hit to change the momentum. It fires up the defense, and just sucks the life out of the other team.”
Friends for life
For Barker, Morrow, Roberts and Robinette, their journey began in peewee and middle school football; they’ve been a tight-knit group ever since.
“We are all so close, and have been friends and teammates since middle school so we are all on the same page,” Barker explained. “You just know what you expect from each other.”
That familiarity with one another has paid off over the years, but none more so than this year. After five seasons of being on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason, the Red Devils returned to the playoffs in 2023, and will face Cody Friday in the semifinals of the 3A State Football Playoffs. The winner will play for the 3A State Championship in two weeks at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie. A big reason Evanston is knocking on the door is the play of their defense.
“The familiarity is great, because we know how each of us play, and how we each benefit each other in every way we play,” Morrow said.
And with familiarity, comes trust.
“We can talk to each other about what needs fixed, and we can trust each other to do their job,” Roberts said. “It’s also nice if I mess up, I know one of the guys will step up and make the tackle.”
Robinette said the younger linebackers backing up the seniors are a talented bunch, so the defense always has a solid core on the field. That said, there’s a different feeling when it’s the four seniors roaming around, looking for someone to hit.
“I trust those guys with my life,” he said. “I feel like we are always on the same page, and we always have each other’s back. If someone gets blocked, or misses a job, the others help and step up. We have studs for backups, but there is something special with us four seniors.”
Managing skill sets…and personalities
While it’s a given that all four seniors enjoy the physicality of the position, each one brings a different approach to the game, and it’s usually something that aligns with their personality.
When asked which of the four has the temper, who talks the most trash, who’s the most level-headed and who you don’t want to meet in a dark alley, Morrow’s answer was succinct, though not surprising.
“I’ll say Cole is the one we need to keep in check with talking trash,” he said. “Brady is the one with a temper. Me and Kai are both pretty level-headed, but you also wouldn’t want to meet us in a dark alley.”
As for what each brings to the table on the field, all agree that Barker’s speed makes him an exceptional linebacker.
“Kai is fast, and can get anywhere on the field to make the tackle,” Roberts said.
“Kai is an all around unit, but one thing that really stands out to me is his pass coverage,” he said. “It’s lockdown in his zone, and his speed gives him the ability to catch running backs on the outside run.”
Morrow is an exceptional run-stopper, according to his teammates, and has a knack for reading plays.
“Cohen flies around, and seems like he never gets blocked, because he reacts so fast,” Barker said.
“Cohen can do it all, but especially a great run stuffer,” Roberts added.
Robinette said Morrow is amazing at getting through blocks and gaps, then laying solid hits.
“Cohen’s great at all he does, but I would say that stands out more than anything else,” he said.
Coach Moore called Morrow a physical player, who’s not afraid to mix it up.
“He’s smart — he understands alignment, he understands gaps, he understands what the D-line is doing,” he said. “He watches film. He’s just a smart, heady football player that flies around and makes plays.”
Roberts is the epitome of a football player — tough, determined and tireless, who makes huge plays when the team needs him to, according to Morrow.
“Brady will always do what is right,” Barker said. “He’s one of the most coachable teammates I’ve ever had.”
“He’s a beast,” Robinette said. “Like the others, just an all-around really good player. But one thing that stands out to me is his ability to hit and make solid tackles. He’s using wrestling moves out on the field, throwing the other team around like they’re nothing. It’s really fun to watch.”
As for Robinette, he’s been known to change the momentum of a game with a single hit, according to his teammates.
“Cole is the linebacker that will lay someone out, and start a spark for the team that we build on,” Barker said.
Roberts put it in even simpler terms.
“Cole is out there to make people not want to play anymore,” he said.
Moore agreed with Roberts’ assessment.
“Cole punishes people,” Moore said. “There was a point in time last year where he was struggling. He was overthinking the game, a little bit, in my opinion. So I went over to him, and said, ‘Cole, just play like your hair’s on fire.’ He took that to heart, and ever since we had that conversation, he just goes out and plays. He makes mistakes like the rest of them, but it’s not lack of effort or passion. He’s a bull in a China shop, and he makes other people not like the game of football.”
A coach’s perspective
For his part Moore said he couldn’t have asked for a better group of senior leaders for his first team as head coach, and the four linebackers have been a large part in helping to ease the transition from the previous coach’s era to his own.
“First thing that comes to mind when I think about those four is that they’re good kids,” Moore said. “They’re going to be great adults. They have a lot of energy and they love the game of football. They’re like coaches on the field — they know the game, they’ve been taught the game, they’re talking, getting everyone lined up. You can tell they’re passionate about the game of football.”
Watching them play together, Moore said it’s easy to see the familiarity they have with each other, and the bond they share. It will be a tough group to replace
“All four are very physical football players — they love the physicality of the sport,” Moore said. “You get four guys out there that have played so long together, they know what each other is going to do — how they’ll react in a certain situation. And they play for each other — they’ve lifted together, they do other sports together, they’re really good friends off the field. And they hold each other accountable. It’s a great relationship that they have.”