WILLMAR — A matchup with a power-run juggernaut like Hutchinson means it’ll be a busy night for an interior defensive player.

Willmar junior middle linebacker Mattix Swanson was ready for that challenge. In the Cardinals’ 42-14 Week 2 loss, Swanson finished with a team-high 20 tackles.

In his first full year as a starter, Swanson is showing a nose for getting to the football. And as Willmar prepares for its home opener Friday against winless Big Lake, the hope is for Swanson to be an anchor in an improving defense.

“I’ve always been at middle linebacker and I’ve been enjoying it ever since youth football,” said Swanson, who has a team-high 29 tackles along with a fumble recovery in two games. “I love hitting people.”

Said Willmar head football coach Jon Konold, “He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and make a tackle for us. He’s really stepped into that role nicely and hopefully, he continues to progress and be one of our leaders on the defense.”

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A three-sport athlete, also playing basketball and baseball, Swanson credits one of his middle-school coaches for really instilling a passion for playing in the middle of the defense.

“One of my teachers and coaches at middle school, we call him ET (Dylan Erickson-Thoemke), he showed me the love of football and what it’s supposed to be about,” Swanson said.

Early in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, Swanson, then a sophomore, was seeing time on special teams. As the year progressed, he showed enough promise to start putting him in on defense, pairing him with a senior-laden group.

“Having that little bit of experience last year and playing with some really good linebackers like (Tyler) Ludwig, (Kadin) Dirkes and (Kaden) Streed, I think he got mentored a little bit and saw what it takes to be a varsity linebacker,” said Cardinals defensive coordinator Dustin Carlson. “I think the game’s a little slower for him and he’s seeing things better.”

Swanson added, “They had more experience than me, so I’d look up to them in practice. I knew where to look to and who to go to when I needed help.”

Willmar junior linebacker Mattix Swanson (21) and the rest of the Cardinal football team warm up prior to practice Tuesday in Willmar. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar junior linebacker Mattix Swanson (21) and the rest of the Cardinal football team warm up prior to practice Tuesday in Willmar. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

It would be a work in progress — and Swanson knows he’s still got plenty to work on — but the uncoachable things about Swanson were enough to get playing time as a sophomore.

“He’s always around the ball and he’s always hustling. Those instincts and being aggressive, those are things you can’t teach,” Konold said. “He would get himself in trouble with how he lines up and things like that, but you can coach those things.”

Admitting he felt like one of the weaker linebackers in 2020, Swanson made it a point to get stronger mentally and physically this offseason.

“I knew if I stayed the same, I wouldn’t be as good,” said Swanson, who’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds.

Along with handling his own duties during the play, Swanson is tasked with getting calls into the defensive line and getting them in the proper alignment as well as making sure linebackers and defensive backs know their coverage zones. With an inexperienced front seven on defense, Swanson said the group is working on building each other up as they learn on the fly.

“I know my role and I know what I’m doing for the most part,” he said. “I feel like I can help out the other dudes that are not getting the playing time that I am. We’re picking each other up and getting the best out of it.”

Konold added, “We got good guys in front of Mattix that are helping him be able to flow to the ball. They’re able to hold their own and he’s able to make plays.”

One of those players in the trenches is Mattix’s brother Mason, a senior defensive tackle for the Cardinals.

“It’s definitely cool that I get this experience to play with my brother,” Mattix said. “It’s not often you get to play with your brother and be next to him. It’s a really cool experience.”

With the Hornets coming Friday to Hodapp Field, the Cardinals hope that Mattix is there to snuff out Big Lake’s run game.

“I’m looking forward to this first home game,” Mattix said. “I hope we can push through with the ‘W.’”