‘There’s no magic behind it.’ How Warren developed one of the top defenses in Illinois

The numbers in the weight room went up.

The numbers on the field went down.

It’s as simple as that for Warren’s scary-good defense.

“There’s no magic behind it,” Bryan McNulty said. “We are pretty intense in the weight room, and that’s helped us a lot.”

McNulty is the head football coach at Warren, where the defense has earned a reputation over the last few years of being as stingy as can be.

This season, the 5-0 Blue Devils have given up just 13 points in five games. They’ve also recorded three shutouts and have defended the run so well that opponents have collectively amassed a shocking negative 24 rushing yards on the season, thanks in part to sacks and tackles for loss.

In 2019, when Warren advanced to the Class 8A IHSA state championship game, the defense was producing similar results.

During the nine games of the regular season, the Blue Devils let up only 21 points while pitching five shutouts.

McNulty, who will try to lead Warren to back-to-back North Suburban Conference championships with a win against Libertyville on Friday, credits much of the success of the defense to defensive line coach Brandon Schild. Schild is also the team’s strength coach, and has been in that role since 2016.

“We are a defensive-first program,” said the 6-foot-5 Schild, who was a defensive lineman himself at Warren in the early 1990s, and then at Eastern Illinois. “And a lot of (a good defense) depends on size and strength. We’ve been lucky to have some really good athletes in recent years, but we’ve also developed those kids in the weight room. And it’s a year-round thing, and all of the coaches are involved. There’s a lot of work that goes into it in the weight room.”

One of Warren’s weight-room success stories is defensive lineman Tommy Matheson.

Matheson, a senior, will be playing football at Princeton next year. He almost can’t believe the strides he has made with lifting, and was proud a few days ago to make yet another significant gain, this time on his back squat.

“I hit 500 for 3 (reps) the other day,” Matheson said. “I was pretty happy about that because every single play as a lineman, you’re pretty much squatting down. It’s all about your legs.”

Matheson’s 1-rep max for back squat is 545 pounds. Just two years ago, he was at around 300 pounds.

“I’ve added a lot, and I think it’s totally a technique thing, and a mental thing,” Matheson said. “Coach (Schild) really harps on technique with everyone. And he’ll get in your ear to help you get over the mental hurdles, too.

“I’ve noticed I have a lot more confidence. I used to be kind of timid when I was younger. I wouldn’t really go after people. But when you work hard day in and day out in the weight room, you earn your confidence.”

Matheson eventually earned his stripes in the weight room, too. He made Warren’s exclusive “1,000-pound club” with big lifts in the back squat, bench press and dead lift that add up to more than 1,000 pounds.

Before Schild took over the weight program five years ago, there were about 10 players in the club. Now, there are about 35.

“Brandon challenges the kids and he’s really good at holding them accountable,” McNulty said. “He takes a simple product with a lot of repetition and makes the kids do it well and with a lot of intensity.

“That’s what you want in a defensive line coach, because playing on the line is really tough, and it’s what you want in a strength coach.”

Schild uses numbers as a motivation in the weight room.

If the numbers of an opposing offense get too high, Schild expects the players to work even harder on their lifts.

“We put carrots out in front of the kids all the time,” Schild said. “If we allow a team inside the 20-yard line, that’s not acceptable. If we allow first downs, that’s brought to the kids’ attention, too. We talk about what the kids want to be remembered for. The defense can play a huge role in setting the tone for us and that starts in the weight room.”

Schild’s approach hasn’t just yielded positive results on the field. It’s created opportunities.

Matheson is one of many defensive players in recent years to earn spots on a college team. The defensive line specifically has been very well represented.

Matheson had more than 20 offers before settling on Princeton, Willis Singleton is now playing at Iowa State, Zack Pelland is now playing at Colgate and Seamus Mellican had multiple offers before graduating last year.

“It’s funny because we all came into the program and we weren’t five-star guys, there was no hype around us. We came in as chubby freshmen,” Matheson said. “But Coach (Schild) has this way of getting the most out of everyone in the weight room and the work that we have all put in has made this perfect storm.

“That’s why Warren is able to produce really good linemen and a really good defense year in and year out. I think we’ve become one of the best defenses in the state.”