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Katy, Tx. Oct. 3, 2019: Katy's Malick Sylla (93) gets between two Tompkins lineman during a game between Katy Tigers and Tompkins Falcons at Legacy Stadium in Katy. (Photo by Mark Goodman / Katy Times)

On paper, Katy’s Malick Sylla is a sophomore defensive end making an impact for one of the top defenses in the state.

But don’t tell that to coach Gary Joseph.

“He’s not a sophomore anymore. He’s played six games. He’s basically a junior in high school right now, in my eyes,” Joseph said. “He’s gotten better, and I’ve said from the very beginning that he can make some plays for us. We’ve got to have him continue making plays.”

There was uncertainty surrounding the Tigers’ pass rush entering this season. Those questions were quickly answered.

The defensive front has been a consistent staple of Katy’s defense, anchored by defensive linemen Cohen Dearman, Tim Nugent, Jayden Holcomb and Sylla. They’ve combined for seven sacks and 15 quarterback harassments. Perhaps more importantly, the productive play of the front has allowed Katy’s linebackers to do what they do best: make plays.

Dearman and Nugent saw significant time on varsity last season. But Sylla has played beyond his years.

At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Sylla is a promising physical prospect. He has impressive length and athleticism.

“He’s really stepped up big,” junior linebacker Shepherd Bowling said. “He’s really long and athletic. Add that to the pass-rush moves he’s getting down, and he can really get to the quarterback.”

Sylla has nine total tackles (three for a loss), two sacks, a fumble caused and a fumble recovery this season. He is among the team leaders in quarterback harassments with four.

At times, he has dominated games.

In Katy’s 35-30 win over Tompkins on Oct. 3, on the opening drive of the second half with Katy ahead 14-10, Sylla recovered a fumbled handoff on Tompkins’ first play from scrimmage deep in Tompkins territory. That led to a Katy touchdown.

On the next Falcons drive, he had a big sack on second down for a loss of seven yards that eventually led to a Tompkins punt and a 52-yard Jordan Patrick return for another Tigers touchdown.

“All week, we work on defense consistently,” Sylla said. “Over and over. The coaches prepare us well. We always know what to expect. I already know formations, all that.”

Sylla said it’s been a huge adjustment going to varsity from the freshman team.

“It’s the game tempo, the speed,” he said. “I feel I can improve my strength. I can always get my speed up, too. And technique. Technique is a big thing.”

Sylla is still, indeed, in the baby stages of his development. But he is learning fast. Joseph said Sylla’s knowledge of the game has been his biggest improvement. Experience has been vital.

Joseph said Sylla now understands why he’s being told to do things instead of just going out and doing them.

“The first thing I look at is my steps and what the tackle does,” Sylla said. “I read what he does to know what I do. That’s what the coaches teach me. Everything starts there.”

Sylla’s first step is everything to his attack. His athleticism and quickness help in that regard. He worked all offseason in the weight room and on the field to get stronger and faster.

He is better in those aspects, but also knows there is more work to be done.

“My whole game is off my first step,” Sylla said. “So the key is to stay disciplined and trust what the coaches tell me to do. I have to keep studying the offense and just pay attention. The scout team gives us a good look every week. I feel I’ve done well; it’s a blessing. I’ve got to keep working, though.”