2018 Gridiron: Illini-West Chargers
2017 Overall Record: 6-4
Head Coach: Lyle Klein
Years at School: 5
Record at School: 25-5
UNBOWED, UNBENT, UNBROKEN: ABUNDANCE OF EXPERIENCE, SPEED PORTENDS A POTENTIAL RETURN TO HISTORIC FORM FOR THE CHARGER GROUND GAME
‘DUB STEPS : Back to back playoff appearances and a one game improvement in the win/loss column (from 5-5 to 6-4 in 2017) would appear to signal that the proud Illini West program has reached equilibrium in the wake of an uncharacteristically uneven and disappointing 2015 campaign. By the same token, this is the historic bellwether of Tri-State Football we are talking about; a community where “good” is simply never good enough. The next evolution for Lyle Klein’s crew as it attempts to inch its way back towards the apex of the IHSA Small School Football Food Chain is Conference Title Contention and Post Season wins. And therein lies the tipping point of the 2018 story for the Chargers. Illini West returns a wealth of experience (14 holdover starters) and some very nifty tactical outliers in the speed department that could help tilt the scales against anyone. See also IW’s First Round Playoff Contest against eventual 2A Runner Up Maroa-Forsyth; which really was a microcosm of the Chargers 2017 tale as a whole. IW dropped 28 points on the road in that game against an undisputed powerhouse and at times, looked unstoppable in doing so. Conversely, I-Dub also surrendered 56 points in looking overmatched defensively against the Trojans. A collection of both breathtaking highs and disconcerting lows that mirrored some of the game-to-game (even quarter to quarter) unevenness that really looms as the biggest question mark about this team moving forward. Clearly there is talent here. Will there be greater consistency? Or the next level mental resolve it takes to stand up and reverse snowballing momentum when it turns against you, as it so often does in swings in this game. A simple uptick in overall maturity would suggest that can be the case. But until the Chargers prove themselves better at “weathering the storm” the questions will persist. In short, that boom/bust potential makes Illini West among the very most fascinating teams in our region.
BAND OF HORSES: High quality Running Backs have been rolling off the “Football Assembly Line” in Carthage since the early 1990’s. So it will come as no surprise to even the casual observer that one of the primary causes for optimism in Charger Country this season is the ability to employ yet another stable full of backfield thoroughbreds. And while I’d argue that this particular class of Charger Back lacks an historic “blue blood” that rises into that Green/Gronewold/Whitaker echelon of elite talent; the returning versatility and mix and match depth does call to mind some of those better Blueboy squads with the ability to put three 1K threats on the field at a time. Senior Nick Vorhies is a proven hammer at Fullback and a returning 1243 rusher who really looms large here. Nick is an ideal hybrid here within the framework of a “speed Wing-T” in that he is a near 200 pound kid with enough breakaway speed to turn daylight into touchdowns; thus complimenting nicely the faster backs astride him. What we love about Vorhies, however, is the ability to run through contact. He might have the most punishing shoulders of any runner in the Tri-States and he uses them to great effect, particulary as a Red Zone battering ram who produced 16 touchdowns a year ago. He’s got ample leg drive too for his size. The structure of Lyle Klein’s offense is such that Fullback looms as the most important position on the field offensively. Being able to man that spot from the jump with such a terrific weapon is a gigantic plus for everyone else here
SARGEANT AT ARMS: While Vorhies will be Target One for opposing defenses, the real intrigue here is just how many quality sets of fresh legs IW can employ around their offensive centerpiece. Colton Sargeant quietly emerged as one of the better all-purpose threats in the region this past Fall and will command more touches accordingly after producing some 990 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns. He’s one of those classic program Wing-Backsexcept with very non-traditional, dare-I-say spread offense level ability to catch the football and generate havoc in space. The kid averaged 42 yards a reception a year ago; which I know skews obscenely because IW doesn’t put the ball into the air very often. That said and I repeat: 42 yards per catch!!! For a 5’8” kid, Colton has incredible hands (or hand if you saw his one handed interception vs Quest last Fall) and gets to the boundary as suddenly as any in our area.
COUNTERMEASURES: While the Vorhies/Sargeant 1-2 punch is considerable, the real game changer here is just how ably IW can decoy off those gents and still effectively generate ground yards. Michael Lord is a slashing Senior who tallied 346 rushing yards (at 5.2 yards a tote) and added six touchdowns of his own. Weston Pollock only had 29 total carries a year ago and still averaged better than seven yards per scamper when he did get the ball. And the Chargers appear to have some added speed to burn this Fall with the potential addition of intriguing Scatback Trapper Benjamin as well. It’s as deep a running back well as you will find in our area. Moreover, I project that it benefits greatly from a sneaky-strong Offensive Line scenario. IW many not have any “luxury plate” returnees on the Offensive Line, but the four starters who are back all hold a great deal of promise. Heck, you could argue that both Ty Jackson (6’ 285lbs) and Jake Cole (6’2” 220lbs) have Top 15 area ceilings if they continue to develop. Jackson has great natural point-of-attack strength and better mobility (chalk it up to the wrestling) that you would expect at his size. And when he has the fire lit, he can be a devastating finisher. Cole could play anywhere on the line (Tight End) included with his athleticism and weight room hewn strength. If Jake turns into one of the best two-way players in our region this year, I’d be the least surprised guy in the room. The girts are there. It’s just a matter of embracing the notion of how good he can be. Seniors Jake Garnett and Tanner Coulter(6’ 260lbs) are solid veterans who should excel with a year under their belt. Bryce Payne is the kind of mobile pulling threat that could really profit this unit out in front of all that Running Back speed. And the Chargers have a nifty group of underclassmen here in Donovan Squier, Lane May, Chase Claassen and Lincoln Kennedy who are all capable of stepping in an challenging for reps. Accounting for fresh legs and capable bodies here, the Charger Ground should be nothing short of considerable this Fall.
UP IN THE AIR: On face value, the graduation of Quarterback Jackson Porter would seem to be Illini West’s biggest Offensive Question mark. Granted, this is a program that historically doesn’t put the ball in the air very often. That said, under Lyle Klein, the Chargers have tried to profile that threat to a greater degree to loosen things up underneath. And make no mistake about, Porter did a very good job delivering the football when his number was called. Since IW retains the remnants of an effective receiving collective (especially with Sargeant and Lord around) I would hazard Lyle Klein keeps that option on the table in integrating a new starter under center. As of this writing in early July, I am not comfortable making any sweeping pronouncements about who IW’s Quarterback is going to be simply because this IW Staff is very much process driven and will take the Summer to sort things out if need be. That said, if Carter Boyer emerges as the ringleader of the offense in his Senior Year, it could be a real win for this offense. He’s plenty athletic. He understands the receiver position (having tallied 106 yards in the pass game a year ago) And he’s been a kid who has played well on the basketball court in big moments. He fits the profile and would certainly help add to the overall mobility in the backfield with his quick feet. But again, I’d caution, Lyle Klein has already shown to be a guy who will roll the dice on lots of different options when it comes to cultivating even non-traditional options at Quarterback, so stay tuned here.
THE LIGHT OF THE CHARGER BRIGADE: Put simply, if Illini West wants to return to prominence as a Fall Power, the Defense has to improve measurably. And actually to put a finer point on things, it’s probably more accurate to say that Chargers “Big Game” Defense must radically tighten the screws. Last year’s squad generally played well against the teams on the schedule who sported sub-five hundred records. And in point of fact, the Charger defense of its own accord played well enough to have beaten BWP; had only the IW Offense not experienced a virtual production blackout. It is, however, those games played in the deep end of the pool that seemed to unravel this Defense and expose every flaw. They gave up 50 to Farmington. Another 56 to Maroa Forsyth. And surrendered a 60 spot to Elmwood/Brimfield. Granted, those are really good opponents; but come on, it’s not like those teams had radically better athletes on the field than the Chargers. Put simply, this Defense did not respond at all well to getting punched in the mouth and that has to change immediately. Because in the Praireland, you are going to run into explosive teams. You have to adjust and learn to better stand your ground.
To that end, IW returns six starters from last year. And as a collective, I think it’s fair to say this is a group that not only has the athletic ability to cover large patches of ground; but also a great deal of proven game savvy. Now it just needs the volition to match.
Strength exists at all three levels as the Chargers return eight of their top nine tacklers from a year ago. I am particularly intrigued by the potential of the Defensive Line, with Tanner Coulter and Ty Jackson anchoring the center of the Chargers five man front. In eight games last Fall, Coulter delivered 25 tackles. Jackson had 35 in nine starts, not to mention six stops for loss. On premise, this is a group that should be able to stack up opponents and stack up Offensive Linemen trying to get off the football. That strong center should allow some latitude for Jake Cole to be used in a more attacking role. He posted a team leading six Quarterback Sacks a year ago and his disruptive talents are field tilting. The roles should expand here as well up front for both Jake Garnett and Matt Greiner, who both have flashed promise as impact gap stuffers early in their careers. As with the Offensive Line, IW won’t lack for depth here in the trenches and the ability to trot out fresh legs to help protect the Linebackers. Don’t sleep on Senior Kellen Dysert, who could be a very significant contributor to this group. Junior Isaac Schreake looks like a future cornerstone here as well.
THE LORD COMMANDER: It goes without saying that if you are going to run a traditional 5-2 scheme in this day and age, you better have really good Linebackers at the ready. You could do a heck of a lot worse in this world than going to battle with Michael Lord and Nick Vorhies manning those spots. Two tough kids with sideline to sideline mobility. Vorhies posted 41 stops a year ago and profiles as the kind of cleaner who can take the starch out of a foe’s run game with his big hits. Lord strikes me as a young man ready to pop huge in his Senior Year. He scrapes through traffic with great ease and does a great job diagnosing on the fly. He had 36 tackles last season and he could well double that in 2018. These are two lynchpin kids in the middle of this thing.
THA CARTER IV: Colton Sargeant is the top returning tackler on the Charger Defense. The fact that he is also a Defensive Back probably speaks too accurately to some of the run stopping issues IW had a year ago. That said, having a dude who produces like an extra Linebacker in run support at the back end of your defense is no small asset. Sargeant and Carter Boyer also each posted three interceptions apiece last season, which suggests this veteran group in the Secondary can cover the airways as well. Weston Pollock and Trapper Benjamin, who each added a pick a piece to the dozen total interceptions IW generated a year ago, are also back in the mix here to hold down the back end of the defense.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: With Kewanee Wethersfield, A-town and Knoxville on the early season schedule, we will have a pretty fair gauge on just how well this Charger team has gelled and seasoned by early September. If the stated goal is restoring the program’s past luster and becoming an eight or nine win a season-type of team again, it’s easy to see why a fast, clean start is critical here for Lyle Klein’s crew. There is no easing into the schedule or room for growing pains, particularly on Defense. These are the type of opponents capable of putting big numbers on the board. And for the sake of both past reputation and future confidence, Illini West needs some Defensive statement action against exactly those types of foes. The margin for error between a 3-1, versus a 1-3 start, is microscopic. And if the Chargers were to backslide into the latter, the playoff calculus changes significantly in difficulty in just trying to find five wins. Put simply, there is pressure here on the Chargers. From Day One. And that is a good thing. This is a squad with something to prove and having a chance to be “pushed” to prove it might be just the catalyzing agent Lyle Klein needs to summon the full and considerable athletic capabilities of the kids he has in play. You will hear a lot of key buzz words about this IW squad in preseason; phrases like “scrappy” and “mentally tough” which are being affected to create a specific persona for this squad. And that’s really the one huge thing it has lacked in recent years. An identity which everyone on the roster owns. Not someone else’s past identity or a sense of tradition; but a true “This is Us” mindset that gives body to their goals. It may have taken losses and scars and heartbreak to get to this point, but this group seems to have figured out the importance a culture of self-belief truly carries. And if it becomes an engrained part of them, there really isn’t any goal beyond the reach of a team this fast, deep, and experienced. The game of football is oft-times won as much between the ears and in the heart as it between the hashmarks. If Illini West is finally “there” as a collective, heaven help every team on their schedule.