Evanston’s football team plans to get more physical this season. And if what’s up front is what counts, the Wildkits could qualify for the Illinois High School Association state playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
Head coach Mike Burzawa plans to return to a more traditional two-back offense this fall, starting with Friday’s season debut at Proviso West, after relying on more finesse and a spread formation the last couple of seasons. A running back himself when he played on state championship squads in high school at Driscoll, Burzawa has always known that football games are won or lost in the trenches.
Now he’s got the horses to get back to that style of play, even though only one of the prospective starters in the offensive line --- 5-foot 11, 280-pound senior guard Bryan Brannon --- is a returning starter.
Another veteran lineman, 240-pound Roger Bowen, has been moved to fullback to add a physical presence in the backfield and to make way for a group of promising underclassmen up front.
“We’ll still be in the spread at times, but we’ve decided to change our style. Our core as a program is running the football, and we want to be more physical and establish a different identity,” Burzawa said. “It all starts up front and if we can run the football better, that will be a key for us.”
The Kits averaged only 89 yards rushing on the ground last year per game, good enough to reach the playoffs with a 5-4 regular season record, but not good enough to advance beyond the first round. With juniors Ferenc Zoltan (6-1, 240) and Jonathan Connerly-Bey (6-2, 260) joining sophomores Morgan Brown (6-0, 250) and Christian Nielsen (6-1, 260) in the starting lineup, the Wildkits will be bigger and better up front.
Both Brown and Nielsen started for an 8-1 ETHS sophomore team as freshmen and Burzawa believes they’re both ready for varsity competition as sophs, unusual as that is in the program.
“The No. 1 thing for any sophomore moving to the varsity is, can they handle it physically? In most cases when we bring a sophomore up, we don’t do it until the fourth or fifth game to make sure they’re ready,” the coach explained. “But both of them have clearly proved that they are in training camp. It’s still going to be a process for them --- and they’re going to make mistakes --- but it’s exciting to see where they’re at right now.
“Zoltan is a player who’s a throwback type of player and I really love his toughness. We’re trying to develop more mental and physical toughness, the kind of toughness we need to be successful, because last year I felt like we weakened a little as a team at the end of the year.
“With so many young guys, we’ve tried to focus on paying attention to detail and staying in the moment. So far, they’ve done an excellent job. Obviously the junior class was very successful last season, but I think they understand that 20 or 30 years from now, people will only ask them what they did as varsity players. I think they’re excited and ready for the challenge.”
At quarterback, junior Matt Little (6-4, 210) steps in as the successor to his older brother, Chris, who’s now calling signals at South Dakota State. Little beat out classmate Immanuel Woodberry for the starting job after the two shared play-calling duties for the sophs last fall.
Little was sidelined with an injury early in the 2013 season but the younger Kits didn’t skip a beat with Woodberry at the helm. As a team, Evanston averaged 40 points per game and suffered their only loss to Maine South. Woodberry threw 7 touchdown passes in a win at Crete-Monee and threw for 1100 yards before Little returned for spot duty over the last few games. Woodberry, who figures to be an impact player on the defensive side of the ball at linebacker, also averaged 6.8 yards per carry when he ran the ball.
That abundance of playmakers at the same position is something the Wildkits haven’t experienced much over the past two decades. And Little and Woodberry are just two of the varsity rookies who have the talent to get the Kits into the end zone on a more consistent basis.
One player to watch on offense is junior Travion Banks. On defense, Woodberry (6-0, 195), linebacker Jalan Jenkins (6-1, 210) and defensive tackle Naquan Jones (6-4, 280) should emerge quickly once they get their feet wet on the varsity level.
Banks scored 19 touchdowns for the sophomore team, including 10 receiving TDs, and led the team in rushing by averaging over 11 yards per carry. He rushed for more than 700 yards even though he rarely played in the fourth quarter of most of ETHS’ games.
He’ll share varsity backfield duties with senior Arrhian Monroe, a 5-8, 190-pounder who only had three carries as a junior.
“I think the future is extremely bright for Travion,” said Burzawa, who also plans to use the speedy junior to return kicks, and on defense. “He has a lot of God-given ability and I’m really proud of how he has matured since last year. He should be a really explosive player for us and with his speed and his explosion, he has a combination that’s dangerous to the defense.
“He also has amazing cover skills as a defensive back. He’s a game-breaker no matter where he plays.”
Senior wide receivers Brandon Hilliard (5-7, 155) and Rei Gaines (5-9, 175) are both returning starters and combined for 50 catches between them a year ago. At tight end, senior Ferris Ingraham (6-4, 220) “had an unbelievable off-season” according to his coach and was named a co-captain for his efforts.
On defense, it might take longer for the Wildkits to reach their potential with zero returning starters on that unit. But there’s talent there, too, for new defensive leader Oliver Gibson to sort out.
Assistant coach Gibson plans to rotate plenty of players on defense, just like his successor, the late Steve King. Jones --- who moved up to the varsity for the postseason game at Barrington --- has already received Division I recruiting offers from Illinois and Iowa.
“He’s just figuring out how to work. Oliver Gibson is one of the best teachers I’ve ever been around, and now Naquan is starting to do a better job of accepting coaching,” said Burzawa. “He can definitely be an impact player for us.”
With Jones anchoring the defensive line, Evanston will alternate between 3 or 4 man fronts. Expect plenty of playing time there for Ingraham and another returnee, Vernell Bentley (6-1, 215). Brown and Bowen should also be in the mix on defense.
Woodberry’s leadership skills have already earned the junior a label as a team co-captain. “We do expect all of our seniors to be leaders, but ‘Z’ is one of the only juniors we’ve had as a captain since I’ve been at ETHS,” Burzawa explained. “If we need him at quarterback, he’ll do a great job there, too. But right now I think his thought process is that his future (in college) could be on the defensive side, at linebacker or safety.
Jenkins heads the list of others challenging for playing time at linebacker, a list that also includes senior Jamal Harvey (5-8, 180), junior Justin Woods (5-10, 205), senior Cedric Logan (5-8, 185) and junior Chris David (5-10, 185).
Candidates to start in the defensive backfield include seniors Xavier Hilliard (6-1, 185), Tafari Dixon (5-11, 160), Marcus Starks (5-10, 160), Omar Brown (5-9, 160), Tyler Shumate (5-9, 175) and Jeffrey Pittman (6-0, 170).
Evanston expects to take a step forward on special teams this year as senior punter Nate Brown returns after averaging 33.9 yards per kick as a junior. And senior placekicker Nate Musso, a move-in from Virginia, will bolster the offense when called upon.
“Brown is a guy who can change field position for us,” Burzawa praised. “He went to a lot of kicking camps this summer and really dived into it. And Musso has been very fundamentally sound, even though he struggled a little bit in our (Orange-Blue) scrimmage. I think our kicking game will be much stronger than it’s been the past few years.”