HUMBLE — All week long, DQ Dawson prepared and worked as if he would start against Atascocita.

The senior cornerback thought he might get the nod with junior Hunter Washington dealing with a sprained ankle. Dawson did indeed get the call Sept. 6 against the No. 8 state-ranked Eagles, and while Washington did end up playing—and making quite a considerable impact himself—the due diligence of Dawson paid off, as he collected two of three Katy interceptions during a 56-14 rout of Atascocita at Turner Stadium.

Dawson, whose performance was extra special because it came on his 18th birthday, simply followed the principles and culture helped established by first-year Katy defensive backs coach Stephen Hodge and fellow secondary coaches in head coach Gary Joseph and assistant Doug Smith.

Next man up. Work like you’re the starter. No one is better than anyone else.

“No player is better than the next player,” Hodge said of a dynamic secondary that includes a NCAA Division I commit in Bryan Massey and highly-recruited prospects like Washington, Dalton Johnson and Bobby Taylor. “We’re all one and the same. If one guy goes down, the next man steps up. That’s what we believe in. This is a close-knit family, and one person is not above the other.”

It’s a group mentality that has been a boon to a Katy secondary that has been stellar this year.

The Tigers have collected four interceptions in two games (Dawson with two, and Massey and Washington with one apiece), and opponents North Shore and Atascocita—one a defending state champion and the other ranked in the top 10 in Class 6A in the state—have completed just 20 of 49 passes (40.8 percent) for an average of 161 yards per game and four total touchdowns.

“We knew everything about them,” an excited Dawson said about Atascocita. “Our scout team did a beautiful job. We stopped those big receivers, and if you stop them, they can’t do anything. We were physical with them. We weren’t scared. We’re scared of no man.”

Was Hodge surprised by Dawson’s play? No. It’s what he expects.

“That’s the whole point,” Hodge said. “Starting the season, we thought it was going to be Daylin Johnson and Hunter Washington (at cornerback). Hunter gets banged up, and DQ studied all week and got ready. What he’s learning and picking up is how to be a starter. The first two series, he finally got the receivers down. He was coming to the sideline telling me, ‘Coach, these are the routes they’re running,’ or when they do certain things, they’re running this way or that way. My secondary kids, we believe in being students of the game. Slow down the game and we can play faster.”

The Eagles boast a dynamic quarterback in Brice Matthews, who torched Taylor for 211 yards and three touchdowns the week before, and a trio of receivers standing 6-foot-3 or taller: 6-4 Darius Edmonds, 6-4 Dylan Robinson and 6-3 Landen King.

But the trio combined for only seven catches and a touchdown; three of those receptions came after halftime when Katy had built a 42-7 lead.

The Tigers set a tone early. Washington intercepted a ball along the left sideline and returned it 53 yards for a 21-7 Katy lead with 2:27 left in the first quarter.

“It’s an honor to play on this secondary,” said Washington, who went through plenty of treatment, at least three rounds daily, to get his ankle right this week. “We’ve been at this for a while now. We study film. We know tendencies. We trust one another and we play to our potential. Coach Joseph tells us to do our best. It’s as simple as that.”

Three Atascocita offensive snaps after Washington’s pick-6, Dawson snared the first of his two interceptions. Three Eagles snaps after that, Dawson intercepted Matthews again.

“He made some good plays, and we have to have people like him who challenge people and are a playmaker,” Joseph said of the birthday boy. “You may not be perfect, but he’s worked hard, and Coach Hodge has done a great job with him.”

The secondary is no longer inexperienced and reluctant like it was during critical times last season. It is now the strength of what looks to be one of the state’s most hellacious defensive units.

But it’s also helped by a pass rush that is considerably more powerful than last season. The defensive line, in particular junior Cohen Dearman, senior Tim Nugent and sophomore Malik Sylla, has been a force, and the linebacking has been as expected with defensive stalwart Jaylen Phillips leading the way.

“The pressure they’re able to get on the quarterback has been key,” Joseph said. “If you let a quarterback just sit there and throw, it makes it hard to cover. I know we’ve been able to get more pressure this year than what we’d been able to generate last year. That makes our secondary much better.”

But Joseph is quick to turn around and commend the secondary. He says its ability to win one-on-one battles makes it easier to consistently get to the quarterback.

“That’s why it’s a team game,” he said. “The pass rush opens up plays for the secondary, and the secondary winning battles opens up for the pass rush. And the offense is converting and keeping the defense off the field.”

A few weeks ago, not long before the season-opener against North Shore, junior quarterback Bronson McClelland walked up to Hodge and peppered him with questions.

“I asked him, ‘Hey, how’s it going? How’s it going to be? What do you think?’” McClelland recalled. “And he told me he plans to have the most interceptions as a defense in the nation. I was like, ‘Of course, yeah, I’d love that!’ Four picks so far. The defense is playing at a really high level right now.”

When relayed that story and asked if that is truly the goal, Hodge didn’t blink.

“The goal is to lead the nation in interceptions,” he reiterated. “I feel we can do that. We prepare for that.”

So far, it’s tough to doubt him.

“We’ve made a statement. We’ve told the state we’re going to come out here and play defense,” Dawson said. “We don’t care who lines up in front of us. We come prepared and we work. That’s just what we do.”