Total Returning Lettermen: 25
2017 Overall Record: 4-5
Head Coach: Conner McLaughlin
Years at School: 1
Record at School: 4-5
Overall Record: 4-5
RPO SPEED WAGON: EXPLOSIVE SKILL WEAPONS, VETERAN CORE HAVE MUSTANGS EYEING A RETURN TO THE PLAYOFF STAGE
PONY TALES: The Cliff’s Notes version of Connor McLaughlin’s first season on the job at Unity/Payson reads thusly
Coach meets New Team. Team opens with impressive wins against WIVC South foes. Team then proceeds to lose four straight against the power players of the North Division. Coach rekindles spark of confidence in team during that fourth and final loss against Camp Point Central in sort of a quasi-moral victory/turning point moment. Team proceeds to destroy Jacksonville Routt. A week later, team pulls off one of the wildest, most impressive comebacks in program history in rallying to beat Calhoun from four scores down; keeping playoff scenarios alive. Team skids off the rails weirdly in Week Nine and gets thumped by Pleasant Hill in a contest that sends the Wolves on to the playoffs and the Mustangs home early for the first time in three years.
Suffice it to say, 2017 was some kind of trippy roller coaster ride for The U. And in the end, the Mustangs were a one touchdown swing in either of two losses from punching a ticket back to the 2A Dance, which is just how razor-thin the delineation can be between success and failure. Which brings us to the all-important takeaways from last Fall:
1)That being close, but not quite close enough is the ultimate torment.
2)That nine weeks of football is no longer enough to satisfying the heighten expectations in Mustang Country.
3)And that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, to paraphrase George Santayana.
KIDS SEE GHOSTS: In hindsight, the inconsistencies that plagued the Mustangs in 2017 perhaps should not have come as a huge surprise considering that squad started thirteen underclassmen (and utilized a dozen more) as part of their rotations. The upshot, however, is that U/P now profiles as one of the most veteran squads in Western Illinois given all the returning experience. Granted, Coach McLaughlin has a few critical spots to fill, particularly on offense; but the prognosis moving forward does fairly read more positively than it did a year ago.
BIG FISH THEORY: The Spread Offense that former Mustang Boss Kevin Krietemeyer implemented with such success in Mendon was tweaked and nuanced by McLaughlin to better fit the Mustang’s personnel last Fall, and thanks to the rise of Taylor Klusmeyer at Quarterback, U/P still proved plenty proficient moving the ball up and down the field at 26 points and 309 yards of total offense per game. Klusmeyer’s graduation leaves a considerable void. Enter Juniors Jacob Presser (who did a nice job playing up last year at Safety) and Austin Cornwell, two-way athletes who will battle out to succeed Klusmeyer as Quarterback. Both kids seem to tick the requisite boxes as run/pass/read threats but we really don’t have a provable body of work from either yet and as previously stated, the winner here is charged instantly with replicating the 215 yards per game passing that Klusmeyer generated a year ago. It’s long been my theory that a young quarterback has no better ally than an effective Offensive Line and in assaying the Mustangs potential strengths, the Mustang’s returning core up front is a huge plus. Emphasis on the word “huge.” Returning Right Guard Collin Gross sets the tone at 295 pounds. Incoming Junior Tackle Chris Ulrich, who stands 6’6” and 280 pounds, would seem an imposing fit piece as well. While those two gents tip the scales, so to speak, nicely in the Mustangs favor up front this season; to my mind here the real asset up front for U/P is this well of athletic 220 pound-ish run and hit guys this program has cultivated in recent years. In fact, this elevation in aggression and toughness up front, is for my money the biggest reason Unity/Payson has emerged from mediocrity in the last five years to become a power player in the Fall. The Left Side of this Year’s Line: Guard Grayson Lewis and Tackle PJ Hildebrand are Exhibit A of this phenomenon. Both are adept two-way blockers who can wall off a hard charging Defensive End or get up field in front of a Jet Sweep and pick off Linebackers and Defensive Backs before they become threats to the ball carrier. And both really came into their own last year in figuring out the tricks of the trade that allow Linemen to balance the scales on bigger guys across from them. I expect Lewis and Hildebrand to be even stronger as one-on-one run blockers in 2018 which should skew the line play into an even bigger plus moving forward as I think there’s still room for overall growth clearing running lanes. There is also impressive mix-and-match depth and size here as well with Hunter Ogle, T.J. Miller, and Tristan Sarver among others serving as the future of this unit. The prognosis is very bright here in the trenches and the I am told the work ethic and weight room dedication of these Mustang Offensive Linemen is the kind that can elevate an entire offense in very short order.
HEAVEN AND EARTH: Assuming proficient Quarterback Play, U/P’s assortment of offensive weapons is mesmerizing in its potential to attack from both air and land. Skyler Hagerbaumer figures to helm the latter as Feature Back. The 5’10” 185 pound Senior is poised for a significant up-tick in carries this season; allowing him to showcase the explosive burst that allowed him to amass 314 rushing yards, 92 receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns he amassed last year in a relatively limited supporting cameo. He’s a kid who quickens the pulse when the football is in his hands and his versatility in being able to both break quickly to daylight and outsprint most Linebackers and some defensive backs at 185 pounds makes him a very dangerous second and third level guy.
Luke Jansen is the only returning full time starter at Wide Receiver, but he headlines a deep crew of capable athletes serving as pass catchers. Jansen is an athletic marvel who changes directions as instantly and seamlessly as any small school kid at his position. If you’ve ever watched him run Point Guard on the basketball court, it’s like watching a Ferrari zip around Tractor Trailers on the Autobahn. The Mustangs delivered him the football 45 times last year and he amassed 395 yards and nine touchdowns, which speaks to his incredible quickness. Suffice it to say it behooves U/P to get him the ball in space as often as possible. He might be as impactful a 5’9” 175 pound kid as you will find in our region. Junior Collin Crow is a rising name to watch here at Wide Out. Depending on what shakes out at QB, either Presser or Cornwell could lend nice size and strength to the Wide Receiving spot as well.
THE BAUM SQUAD: With eight returning starters back, Unity/Payson is poised to make significant strides improving a unit that gave up 28 points per game a season ago. Granted, there is no Dakota Ehrhardt-level franchise cornerstone Defender yet established in this mix but Middle Linebacker Blake Hagerbaumer seems poised to make a significant leap into the Tri-State Football consciousness. He’s a rangy and rugged 215 pounder who bagged up 42 tackles as a Junior, tops among all Mustang returnees. Speaking plainly, U/P has to do a better job being physical and holding its ground against the Wing-T devotees in the WIVC North and Blake is the kind of potentially big-booming hitter who could ignite that mindset. We are banking that after cutting his teeth last year, Hagerbaumer is more instinctive and reactive and thusly able to turn it loose a bit more than last year. And he’ll benefit from a potentially dynamite pair of Seniors flanking him in Connor Janssen (6’2” 190lbs) and Skyler Hagerbaumer (22 tackles last season) The mindset here is that this is such an athletic second tier of the defense and that these guys have spent enough time growing together that this trio really coalesces in 2018; that the group projects greater range and natural game feel than it did a year ago. If that is the case, this could be a Top 10 Area Linebacker Group.
GROSS ANATOMY: On paper, Defensive Line Play reads as a net strength as well for the U/P Defense. If you are looking for a breakout star from that group, Collin Gross showed real motor and savvy last year as a two-gap plugger who netted 34 tackles at 290 pounds while pulling two-way Linemen duty. More than just that, however, he’s a super tough kid to get blocked and if you go back and watch his tape, it’s amazing how many opportunities he create for his teammates just because he collapses blocking schemes so easily. The Mustangs have nifty bookends here as well with PJ Hildebrand and 6’2” 225 Senior Wade Bartlett (21 tackles) manning the edge spots in the 4-3 scheme. Add in Chris Ulrich or T.J. Miller at the other D-Tackle spot and you’ve got a D-Line that looks more like a Western Big Six squad than a WIVC crew. These guys did help hold foes to just 182 ground yards a game last year and there’s not terribly many 1A/2A Offensive Lines that can stack up to this kind of size; let along athleticism and motor at this size in the State of Illinois. Plus, Connor McLaughlin has the depth in play here to employ fresh legs up front when needed. Again, there are great number of reasons this season to believe Unity/Payson can really turn the corner Defensively and elevate back into a power player in the Division and into the playoffs.
DON’T SLEEP ON: Sophomore Kicker Benet Duesterhaus, who converted on 27 of his 30 Field Goal/Pat attempts last Fall as a Ninth Grader playing on the Varsity. I’d remind you he also successfully booted home a 35 yard Field Goal as well. Kickers are luxury items in Small School Football. The Mustangs appear to have a dandy one on their hands for the next three seasons.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: These guys are comparatively easy to read in 2018. If the Quarterback play is sound, Unity/Payson is a potential six win team. If the growing pains at that position become the storyline, I think you see some a similar narrative arch to 2017. But honestly, I think this Coaching Staff is savvy enough to put its young quarterbacks in a position to excel; de-emphasizing their prominence in the offense to cater to the greater known strengths. In that sense, I get the feeling you will see more ground and pound, RPO-style, than in years past and I think Skyler Hagerbaumer is destined for stardom running the football behind a very talented Offensive Line. There are too many weapons here and too many creative minds at play on the coaching staff to hinge the fate of a season onto a rookie QB’s shoulders. And given the set-pieces, Unity/Payson could really be fun skewing more run to pass than at any time in the last four years because they have so many different avenues now with which to attack you on the ground. That’s the nuts and bolts of it. To me, however, the greater over-arching asset here is simply overall consistency. At every position. Unity/Payson is simply a cleaner football team in 2018 with a clearer understanding of what it takes to get the W on a given night; and less inclined to shoot its own self in the foot in that quest. I know that’s not really deep football analysis but it is a critically important tipping point in a game we too often over-complicate. I still think Central, Beardstown, and Triopia are the class of the North this season but Unity/Payson is more than competitive enough and talented enough to beat any of those teams on a given night. I’ll set the over/under at five wins and be not at all surprised if the Mustangs spend Week Nine reversing polarity and result on Pleasant Hill/Western as revenge on October 19th to smooth the way back to the dance. Should be a wildly entertaining Campaign in Mustang Country this Fall.