Years from now, Jimmy Craven aspires to be an orthopedic surgeon, aiding injured athletes to get back on their feet.

"At some point, sports is going to end and I want to see how I can help athletes stay in the game," Craven said. "It's a way to stick with the game."

Right now, the Portage senior defensive end is excelling on knocking opponents off their feet, leading the Indians in sacks and tackles for loss.

"It's wild how it played out," coach Darren Rodriguez said. "We thought he was going to be a really good tight end and he still could be. He's got a great frame. He runs well. We had an injury on the defensive side last year, he got a chance to start and he didn't look back."

Job Kitchen got hurt before the third game last season, creating an opportunity at defensive end for Craven. It was a major upgrade in action, given the tight end spot doesn't get much action in the Portage offense.

"I enjoy playing there," Craven said. "I did pretty good, so they kept me there."

Modest in size (195 pounds) for a lineman, the 6-foot-3 Craven compensates in other ways to combat the greater girth of offensive linemen.

"That's my biggest challenge. I've always been a little lighter," he said. "I try to use my speed to my advantage. I get off the line pretty quick. That's what I'm best at, beating them around the edge, running my quick moves. Taking on 250-, 300-pound tackles, I have to focus on trying to stay lower than them."

As Craven started following the NFL as a kid, he took a liking to Julius Peppers. With a team-leading three sacks and six tackles for loss, he's doing a pretty strong impersonation of the former Bears pass rusher.

"Last year, we had RaQuan Lindsey coming off the other side and (Craven) was pretty close to leading us in sacks," Rodriguez said. "People were running at him because of RaQuan and now they're running away from him. He's highly intelligent. He understands the game, the things you teach. He listens to the little details the coaches tell him. He dedicated himself to get better in the weight room."

Rodriguez doesn't see Craven, a three-sport athlete, much in the offseason. He also wrestles, largely for conditioning, and plays baseball, though football, which he's played since he was 5, is his passion.

"I like him wrestling," Rodriguez said. "It's part of the toughness part, the competitiveness. He's a good leader. That's something we lacked last year and with this class of seniors, we needed them to step up and set the tone, in the classroom, on the field and in games. Jimmy doesn't say a lot, so when he does say something, guys know they should probably listen."

Also a Pop Warner referee and youth baseball umpire, Craven first found his interest for the medical field when he hyperextended his elbow as a freshman. He was back to the orthopedist last spring when he sprained his MCL.

"It's something that's always interested me," he said. "I always see the trainers, but I wanted to go past that level."

At this point, Craven isn’t sure how his playing ambitions will mesh with his academic plans. He'll determine that by the spring. The goal for the fall is finishing his high school career, which started with an undefeated freshman season, finish on a high note.

"The past few years, we didn't do too well, but we started to pick it up last year," he said. "We’ve had a couple big wins, so we want to keep the momentum going in the DAC and into the sectional. Week one (a 47-45 loss to Mishawaka) was a reality check for (the defense). It humbled us. It made us work harder in practice. We've gelled since then. We just have to keep pushing. There's always room for improvement."

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Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.