ALL-TIME TEAM: defensive backs

Matt Sharer is one of the special players to come out of Tyrone.

It’s not just because he could transition from one position to another with seeming ease or because he was a three-year starter who never did less than win a District 6 championship.

There are other players who could come close to Sharer in those categories.

Instead, what makes Sharer special is the undying recognition he’s still awarded by Golden Eagle alumni.  Many feel he’s the best athlete ever to wear a uniform at Tyrone.

Almost all feel he did for the position of defensive back what Jesse Jones did for running back, what Steve Franco did for quarterback, and what Nick Patton did for wide receiver.  Sharer redefined how that position would be viewed for generations to come because he was just that good.

How good?  Well, for starters he was named to the AP’s All-State first team twice as a defensive back, which is special for a couple of reasons.  Sharer got his first all-state award in 1996 when the Golden Eagles marched to the PIAA championship game with a 13-0 record.  That was in the days before Tyrone was a relatively known football commodity across the Pennsylvania landscape.  But even then sportswriters recognized his incredible abilities.

He then went out and did it again in 1997, despite playing two fewer games in the PIAA playoffs, which is a major stage for All-State caliber players to show their skills.

Matt Sharer had 20 interceptions in his career at Tyrone.

Sharer finished his career with a school-record 20 interceptions – a number that has not even been approached in the 21 years since he last played – and he is an overwhelming selection as a defensive back on the rebooted All-Time Team.

Sharer’s raw athleticism and versatility got him on the field right away when he moved to the varsity squad in 1995.  John Franco used to recall a story about Sharer’s first game in the 1995 Backyard Brawl against Bellwood-Antis when situations forced him to play linebacker, defensive back, and defensive end all in the same game.

His morphability kept him on the field for most downs the remainder of his career, but while he was a 1,300-yard passer and a 400-plus-yard receiver, Sharer may be best remembered for what he did in the secondary.  His junior season he recorded a school-record 10 interceptions.  His senior season he added seven more, returning one 98 yards for a touchdown against Philipsburg-Osceola.

Sharer would be the alpha dog in any all-time secondary, able to play any position he wanted, but it would probably be best to put him at safety because he was as sure a tackler as he was a pass defender. That leaves three other spots. 

Ideally, you’d like to have another tackler who could cover and read passing plays well enough to give help and sneak in for the occasional interception playing alongside Sharer at safety.  Steve Franco fits that bill pretty well.

Number two on the school’s all-time interceptions list with 11, Franco was special as a defender not only for his understanding of Tyrone’s defensive system but for his understanding of his opponent’s system, too.  He knew from film a team’s tendencies, but beyond that he had natural instincts as a football player. To see Franco shifting defenders and pointing directions before the snap of the ball was a common occurrence, and when he zeroed in on a play more often than not he was there to make a stop or a takeaway.

That was never more evident than in the 2011 PIAA semifinals against Aliquippa at Mansion Park.  Tyrone was ahead 20-19 late and looking to run some clock but a third-down pass by Franco was intercepted by the Quips and returned to the Eagles’ 22.  After three plays netted just one yard, Franco redeemed himself on fourth down with an interception that gave Tyrone possession with less than two minutes remaining and shaped the rest of the game.

Because of Franco’s incredible numbers as a passer during his three years as a starter, it’s one of the untold stories of Tyrone football that he was also a first-team all-conference defensive back in both his junior and senior seasons.  And it’s as a safety where Franco has made his mark on the next level, starting at the position for Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

You could play man or zone with Sharer and Franco helping out from behind, but you would still need some serious speed and pass coverage on the corners. And that’s where Joe Steinbugl and Eric Desch come in.

When there were plays to be made, the sure-handed Steinbugl made them, and on a defense loaded with conference all-stars he stood out.

Steinbugl was one of the top receivers in school history during his era from 1986 through 1988, but there’s no denying that his forte was as a pass defender.  His senior season he had nine interceptions,which ranks him just behind Sharer, and it seemed like he had a hand in stealing or breaking up almost every pass attempt by opposing quarterbacks. 

Here’s a quick snapshot: two interceptions against unbeaten Philipsburg-Osceola on the road in a Big 8 classic that Tyrone won 10-6; one pick in a victory over Bald Eagle Area that helped secure a tie for the conference championship; an interception to preserve the season’s first win against Lewistown; an interception against rival Huntingdon.

When there were plays to be made, the sure-handed Steinbugl made them, and on a defense loaded with conference all-stars he stood out.

For his efforts he was named a second-team Big 8 and Central Counties defensive back as a senior.

Desch had a similar penchant for dramatics, as most good defensive backs do.  In fact, of all the defensive backs on the All-Time Team, Desch may be the one you would want most patrolling the secondary in big-game passing situations, not only because he could make the plays but because he wanted to make the plays. He lived to make the plays.

Desch was steady in terms of numbers.  Five interceptions his junior season in 2008, his first year as a starter.  Five more his senior season, when it was clear he was the best defensive back on the field most nights.

But what made Desch special were the situations in which he rose to the occasion.  Two stand out, and both came in 2009, when a sophomore-dominated Golden Eagle team somehow scrapped its way to a 10-3 record and a District finals appearance. 

In Week 4 against Clearfield – one year after the Bisons had snapped Tyrone’s 34-game regular-season winning streak – Desch delivered the hit of the game to separate a Bisons receiver from the ball inside the 20 as they drove toward the end zone.  The Eagles went on to win 23-14, and along with his crushing hit Desch also finished with an interception as Tyrone earned a bit of vindication from the year before.

Seven weeks later, Tyrone faced Central in Roaring Spring in the District 6-AA semifinals.  Central was the defending champion and riding high after defeating the Golden Eagles 14-7 in the regular-season finale in Week 10, a victory that allowed Central to claim the Mountain Athletic Conference championship.

But the rematch would b every different.  There would be no explosive plays for the Dragons or their game-breaking superstar Lucas Runk, and Desch was a big reason why.  Late in the game, after Central, trailing 7-0, had driven inside Tyrone’s 20 attempting to even the score, Desch stepped in front of a pass by Runk at the goal line for an interception that for all intents and purposes ended any hopes the Dragons had of repeating as District champs.

That snag alone pretty well summed up the career of Desch: not only could he make big play, he longed to make the big play.

There are plenty of other DBs that would help the all-time team, and could create some unique matchups in nickel and dime packages.  Charles Wilson-Adams could not only sniff out a pass pattern as well as anyone, but he could turn defense to offense in a hurry.  In 2011, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including a crucial pick for a score in the PIAA semifinals against Aliquippa.  He finished his career with 11 interceptions.  Ben Ingle, while never flashy, recorded 10 career interceptions, including six his senior season when Tyrone went unbeaten in the regular season and limited opponents to 7.6 points per game. 

Kevin Jenkins, who had seven interceptions in 1981, would also be a solid situational defensive back on any All-Time Team, one capable not only of covering an opponent’s top speed receiver, but, like Adams, of turning field position with yards after the takeaway.

Ben Ingle started in the Eagles’ secondary for two seasons and finished his career with nine interceptions and 10 total takeaways playing on one of the top defenses of the current century. As a junior in 2007 he had six picks, and his ability to execute a game-plan rivaled that of Franco.

Finally, Parker Mitchell would have to get a nod in the secondary after an incredible three-year career from 2015-2017. He broke on the scene as a sophomore with four picks in 2015, and followed that up with a three-interception season as a junior. His senior season Mitchell had just one pick – in part because by then defenses had learned to throw away from him more often than not, but he still managed to make plays, coming up with four fumble recoveries. That’s a total of 12 takeaways in three seasons, and that’s not bad.

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