Senior linebacker Sam Taviani and junior cornerback Antwain Walker have both been key contributors to what is now officially a historic North Central defense after their program-record fourth consecutive shutout in the Cardinals’ victory over North Park. That isn’t new for Taviani, but Walker is new to the program this year after transferring from Northern Illinois University. Now eight weeks into the season, they’re able to look back and admire their work up to this point.
“I remember last year we were trying to get a ton of shutouts, but this year we’re just taking it week-by-week,” Taviani said of the new record. “We’re trying not to put to much pressure on ourselves, we just want to play to our standard and win games.”
“It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of a historic defense like ourselves,” Walker added. “It just shows all the hard work we’ve put in throughout the week. Coach Dierking and the defensive staff do a great job of preparing us for each and every game and we just go out there and execute the game plan.”
A hallmark of the shutout streak has been the role of the second-team defense, who often play a majority of the second half, in maintaining the shutouts and forcing turnovers. That continued this week, as different players continue to step into the spotlight for making huge plays.
“It says a lot about our defense that not just the starters are good, but the whole unit is good,” said Taviani of the defense’s depth. “That’s a lot of credit to our coaching staff, and I think a lot of credit to our defensive line because football is won at the line of scrimmage. When you have a really good defensive line and they’re playing well, that makes our jobs a lot easier in the secondary.”
“It just shows how well put together we are as a defense,” said Walker. “Every guy matters, and it’s showing every week that every guy puts in the work at practice to be able to show how strong we are as a defense when anyone gets into the game and they really execute their job.”
A starter last year as well, Taviani is now the lone senior in the Cardinals’ defensive backfield. But he had plenty of role models over the past few years to help him prepare for this leadership role.
“Last year it was a lot different,” Taviani said of his elevated role as a leader this year. “Last year I had guys like Jake Beesley, Dakota Cremeens, Ben Wong and Storm Simmons that I could look up to, and I just tried to take in everything they were trying to teach us. I try to emulate that this year, and I’m just trying to set a good example for the young guys and show them what Cardinal football is all about.”
Taviani has had to build chemistry with an almost entirely different group of surrounding starters, while Walker had to start from scratch entirely as a transfer. Both credited the coaching staff and the team’s culture for helping them build bonds between players so quickly.
“I would say the biggest thing is trust; trust in each other that we’re going to do our job,” Walker said. “And the most important part of building that chemistry comes from the locker room and outside of football; how much we all love each other, how we have each other’s back, and I think that’s what shows.”
“Yeah, I think we’re just so bought into the system,” Taviani continued. “We love the coaching staff and respect them, so we want to play hard and play well for them.”
It’s rare for a player with Division 1 football experience to find their way on to a Division III roster, so with likely no shortage of options for continuing both his football career and education, Walker explained his choice of North Central.
“I sat of football for a year and a half and I was looking for a place that was close to home and a place where I could win and be a par of a program that has a great culture,” Walker said of his choice. “I didn’t know much about North Central, but I had a feeling that this would be something special. Julian Bell and I grew up together, and he had nothing but good things to say and I trusted him, I came here, and it’s been unbelievable. This is what college football is all about… This program has taught me a lot about myself, and building myself to be the best man that I can be. I feel like this program has done more for me off the field than on it, and I would say on the field the coaching staff has done a good job helping me build my football IQ. Playing at the Division 1 level, it’s a lot about talent. Here it’s about football IQ and I really enjoy that.”
Meanwhile, Taviani’s experience as a member of two Stagg Bowl qualifying teams, including winning a national championship, give him the perspective to put this year in context. As far as what makes this particular team special, he points to Brad Spencer and his staff for making the biggest difference.
“I think it stands out because of what the coaches are doing,” Taviani said of this season. “They’re putting us in the right positions at the right times and putting together a really good game plan every week. We just want to play hard for each other.”