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Prep football: Schneberger has turned into Cloquet's defensive leader

Cloquet's Jayden Schneberger talks to teammates during practice Wednesday at Esko. (Clint Austin / / 3
Jayden Schneberger of Cloquet rushes the ball during practice Wednesday at Esko. The Lumberjacks face Becker in a Class AAAA quarterfinal Friday night in St. Cloud. (Clint Austin / / 3
Jayden Schneberger of Cloquet catches a pass during practice Wednesday at Esko's football field. (Clint Austin / / 3

A former linebacker, Cloquet football coach Tom Lenarz knows the drill.

On a team with a high-octane offense, defense is akin to a commercial break, a necessary evil that interrupts the featured attraction. But the Lumberjacks likely wouldn't be in their fourth state tournament since 2013 were it not for a stingy defensive unit that has held six of 10 opponents to single-digit scoring.

So it was in last week's Section 7AAAA final. Lost amid the spectacle of Spencer Wehr rushing for 200-plus yards and scoring seven touchdowns was Cloquet's ability to bottle up Aaron Robillard-led North Branch, which arrived at Public Schools Stadium averaging 43 points. The Vikings scored 26 after Robillard's long TD in the final minute, but the quarterback never was able to wreak his customary havoc.

"We shut down a kid who, in my mind, is a Mr. Football candidate, in an offense that's been even more explosive than ours," Lenarz said of Robillard, who finished his senior season with more than 1,800 yards and 26 TDs on the ground, to go with another 1,300 and 14 through the air.

No Lumberjack is more emblematic of the team's unheralded defense than Jayden Schneberger. A gritty senior, Cloquet's coaches refer to Schneberger as a "self-made man." He wasn't oozing with athleticism when he joined the program as a freshman. Back then, Lenarz says, you never would have looked at Schneberger and pegged him for a future varsity starter.

But here he is, a catalyst on a state qualifier — just as he was last year. The senior linebacker worked tirelessly as a youngster to become irreplaceable. Lenarz says Schneberger, who hasn't missed a start the past two seasons, has "created himself."

"He's done everything we've asked him to do, and more," Lenarz said. "He's never been sick, never been hurt, never missed an event. He's the kid that shows up in the summer to help hand out equipment to little kids. He's been fantastic for us. I can't say enough good things about Jayden."

Schneberger was asked to describe his younger self. Smaller, not too scrawny but not too strong, either, was what he came up with.

"Just an average Joe, I guess you could say," Schneberger said.

His first taste of varsity football came as a sophomore, debuting against a dominant Hermantown team that overwhelmed its opponents en route to state.

"That was like, 'Wow, I have to put some work in or I'm going to be toast the next couple years,' " Schneberger recalled.

That's exactly what he did. The way Cloquet defensive coordinator Jeff Ojanen describes it, Schneberger "kills himself in the weight room."

This fall, he's totaled a team-best 49 tackles. The Lumberjacks are allowing 12.8 points per night, sixth-best in Class AAAA, going into Friday's 8 p.m. state quarterfinal against Becker at Husky Stadium on the St. Cloud State campus.

Schneberger had 8.5 of his tackles against North Branch, with a section title on the line. Just another day on the job for Mr. Dependable.

"You can count on him," Cloquet senior Mitchell Gerlach said. "We know he's going to do his job every Friday."

The Lumberjacks' defense might be overshadowed by playmakers like Wehr and quarterback Tim Pokornowski, but the group is every bit as vital to their success. And Schneberger is at the heart of it.

He's no longer average.

"He's the guy that makes us tick on defense," Lenarz said. "It's really just a credit to his hard work."