2014 BARNSTORM TOUR NOTES
STOP EIGHT: ILLINI WEST CHARGERS
Truthfully, the Barnstorm Tour never feels truly started until I make the trip to Carthage. New this year: I got to participate in my first ever Steeler Mile. I was, however, unsuccessful in convincing any of the Charger players to high five me and thus cost themselves extra laps. Speaking plainly, my acting chops weren't very good and I am not sure I sold the high five in a manner befitting a Daniel Day Lewis or Anthony Hopkins. If asked in future years, I will cultivate a more convincing persona.
First order of business in Charger Country was determining who would handle the play calling this season with former Offensive Coordinator Joey Dion moving on to take a new administrative position at Jacksonville High School. It turns out those duties will fall to the head man, Lyle Klein. Yes, Coach Klein was known for years around here as one of the preeminent Defensive Gurus and Line Specialists around but he also called plays within the old Carthage system at the Junior High level for years. At least one of his assistants told me it was a best fit answer for the program because of Lyle's ability to be patient with the play calling and to set up his moves like a chessboard; seeing the angles ten plays ahead. Be forewarned, there won't be a lot of flash in the play calling. Expect Coach Klein to pare the playbook to six or seven perfect base plays and go old school with a lot of the traditional basic stuff that fueled the salad days of Carthage, LaHarpe NW, and IW Championship Football.
Since roughly 1992, those outlier Hancock County teams were known for great backs and backfields. On paper, this year's incarnation of the Charger Running Back has two distinct characteristics that rank with, perhaps ahead, of some of those greatest groups: overall speed and depth. That's not to suggest in anyway this group has yet earned the right to be compared with the outliers in this programs history. Jacob Sholl is, of course, ridiculously fast as your reigning state 200 meter champion; so much so that his biggest problem seems to be out-running his blocking at times. Nolan Ard can flat move. The Chargers are working with Austin Curfman, who average better than 7 yards per carry last season, as a Speed Fullback to help mitigate the loss of Leighton Johnson. And the Chargers have very capable options behind all three running back spots. Curfman confided after practice that last year, there were times the Charger Backs got gassed late in games last year. The depth in play will mitigate overuse and keep a lot fresher legs on the field. On top of that, Braden Bennett is a tremendous running quarterback with a high football IQ. I don't envy the Defenses that have to try and stop these guys.
The question marks here are all about the Offensive Line, which graduates four starters and loses one more who opted not to come out for Football this season to concentrate on another sport. Coach Klein told me point blank he really likes the athleticism in play up front as well as the work ethic; especially from the bigger guys. Take Adam Wright. The IW Coaching Staff set 40 summer workout sessions as the high water mark in the off-season. Wright turned in a team best 53 weight room sessions and has thrust himself into the equation for playing time because of that desire to get better. That shows just how hungry these guys are after a couple of seasons of quick playoff ousters. Chargers still aren't very big up front overall, but they are very quick and this team has gotten back a bit of its mean streak in finishing blocks.
Don't know how much they will get seen in "glamour roles" since IW doesn't throw much, but I can tell you this: the Chargers have a pair of ends who will flat block you in Colton Mellinger and Dustin Waddell. That aspect of the game doesn't get talked about enough.
I showed up in Carthage on an Offensive Day so I can't speak to how much the Charger Defense has tightened the screws after last season. But I can tell you that the players were very candid about not being aggressive and physical enough last season and that has narrative has really fueled the off-season work.
Sleeper kid to watch: Dalton Merry. He can play just about anywhere. He runs well. And he likes to hit people. Methinks he will be a far more visible cog this season.
As much as I would love to be really high on the Chargers, their schedule is just flat nasty, starting with the road trip to Rockford and relenting...well, never. Lyle Klein's terse take on that situation: if we get caught looking ahead, ever, we are doomed. That says a lot.