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Proctor's main disruptor: Stevens leads Rails into state tournament

Proctor's Kaleb Stevens (right) pressures Esko quarterback Brendan Durand during last week's Section 7AAA championship game at Malosky Stadium. Stevens leads the Rails into this weekend's Class AAA quarterfinals. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Statistically, Proctor senior defensive tackle Kaleb Stevens has had a productive fall. But it's a different set of numbers that best highlight the senior's effectiveness.

"Do the math," Rails coach Derek Parendo says, before doing it himself. "If the offense has 11 people, minus one who's got the ball, minus the quarterback, now they only have nine to block 11. And if you're taking two guys to block Kaleb, that leaves only seven blockers for the other 10 guys.

"We like those odds."

Ten games into the season, which continues Saturday against Pierz in the quarterfinals of the Class AAA state tournament, it's easy to see why. Proctor's first-string defense has given up just nine touchdowns and it has allowed a measly two scoring drives of 40 or more yards.

Stevens is the big disruptor. He's the guy opponents take stock of every snap, then run away from. Parendo says Stevens routinely has to deal with an offensive tackle and tight end. Occasionally, the double-team is fortified with help from a running back. Despite all the attention, the three-year starter has amassed 72 tackles and seven sacks, a category in which Stevens holds the Rails' all-time record, with 23.

He admits it can be frustrating trying to make plays while absorbing a steady stream of linemen. But, Stevens and Parendo acknowledge, it creates opportunities for others. Brett Bower leads the way with 92 tackles and Matt Zupetz has 86.

"We're winning games, so it's worth it," Stevens said.

Northland coaches aren't the only ones who have noticed Stevens. He has made the recruiting rounds the past year, visiting about half the NSIC schools. Bemidji State and Crookston have extended offers, while Moorhead, Mankato and UMD are interested. Stevens also has an offer to play for Drake, a non-scholarship Football Championship Subdivision program.

He says he attended 20 camps last summer. Most were in the Upper Midwest, but he also traveled to Ivy League institutions Brown and Cornell out east. Now, it's about trying to find the best situation. Stevens intends to pursue a career in either civil engineering or project management. Football could assist those plans.

"At the start of junior year, I was thinking I can probably save some money in college by playing football," Stevens, who owns a 3.6 grade-point average, said.

He then went out and registered 85 tackles, 16 for loss, and nine sacks last year.

At 6-foot-2 and 235 muscular pounds, Stevens certainly has a next-level build. And he moves well, even doing some sprinting for Proctor's track squad in the spring, though "sprinting" may need quotation marks.

"I try to run, but I'm just not very fast," he said, before amending that statement. "I'm fast for a bigger guy."

The Rails hook up with Pierz at 3 p.m. Saturday at Brainerd High School. It's a rematch of a 2013 quarterfinal, won by Proctor at Malosky Stadium.

The clubs feature the stingiest defenses in the bracket. The Pioneers are tops at 6.7 points against, while the Rails allow 10.7. Proctor posted three shutouts in the regular season, all against Class AAAA foes.

"When they score, which doesn't happen often, it hurts," said Stevens, who also rotates in on the offensive line.

Talking inside Proctor's field house Thursday — practice was going to be outside until the wind chill dipped into January-like territory — Stevens said Pierz comes in Saturday with a target on its back. The Pioneers are perennial state participants, winning a championship as recently as 2015. The Rails, then, are the hunters.

Stevens and his defensive cohorts are ready to get to work.

While Parendo likes the odds that stem from Stevens fielding multiple blockers, he's also a fan of the opposite strategy.

"If a team tries to single-team him, more times than not Kaleb has an effect on the play," the coach said. "Either he makes the play himself or he's pressuring the quarterback, or making a running back change directions, things like that, and that's what we've seen this year."

PIERZ (10-0) VS. PROCTOR (8-2)

What: Class AAA state tournament quarterfinal

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Brainerd High School

Radio: WKLK-FM 96.5

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