2018 Gridiron: West Hancock Titans
Colors: Red, black and white
Total Returning Lettermen: 8
2017 Overall Record: 11-1
Head Coach: Travis Cook
Years at School: 6
Overall Record: 11-1
THEY SURE PLAY A MEAN PINBALL: TITANS REBOOT WITH NO LESSENING OF EXPECTATIONS
WHEN LAST WE LEFT THE TITANS: They were dejectedly sorting out the aftermath of a heartbreaking 20-16 playoff loss in Warsaw to eventual State Runner Up Maroa Forsyth; a particularly vexing exercise considering that West Hancock led that contest for all but the last 46 seconds of the affair. An inelegant end to an otherwise flawless campaign that saw Travis Cook’s crew win eleven straight to open the season, with red letter victories over QND, Clark County, Miller Career Academy and Auburn along the way. The postgame “pall” was made particularly palpable in that thirteen of the Titan’s starters in that loss to the Trojans were Seniors; lynchpin kids who truly helped change the polarity of a once flagging program into a recognized 2A State Powerhouse.
PALATABLE LEFTOVERS: West Hancock will return five starters from a Defense that allowed a paltry 12.5 points per game against in 2017. Granted, none of the holdovers there are the kind of Franchise “Name Guys” Travis Cook used to populate his Defense last Fall; but realize those kind of roster tree godsends (the Titans legitimately had four All State caliber candidates on that defense to build around and rare luxury of having such a performer at every single tier of the unit) come along about once every 15 years. That established, the fit pieces here are no joke. In fact, there’s a very real chance that three of last year’s supporting cast kids are poised to maximize expanded personal windows this year and make their own significant individual splash of their own. Moreover, Cook can place one of each at every level of his defense and hope to graft production around their growth. It starts with Weight Room Force of Nature James Corvaia building on a quietly brilliant Junior campaign (90 tackles, 48 solos, 6 stops for loss, a QB sack and an interception) and cementing the all-important Inside Linebacker position in the Titans traditional 5-2 scheme. He is cut a bit from the Chase Hartweg body mold (5’7” 195 pounds) but with a considered uptick in the raw strength metrics. He looms as an exciting piece of the puzzle. The window for Senior Defensive End Korey Van Fleet is beguiling as well, but maybe for different reasons. The Titans have made their daily bread with big hulking gap splitters up front as at the calling card of their Defense. Van Fleet, is by contrast a lithe 200 pounder with quietly dazzling athleticism. To wit, I saw him make a couple of plays on the Baseball diamond this past Spring that betrayed just what a high window I think he has moving forward as playmaker. Don’t get me wrong, Korey has been pretty darned good to date. Statistically, 87 tackles, six stops for loss and four fumble recoveries is nothing to sneeze at. And yet, it feels like he still hasn’t figured out just how dominant he can be shedding blockers and stalking down kids that most linebackers struggle to track. And while we are on the subject of athleticism, Peyton Dooley at Defensive Back might be the most athletic kid at either Warsaw or Hamilton. He’s taller and bouncier than the great Riley Langford and got a first-hand education on what it means to be THE Defensive Back of gravity in our area last Fall from the man himself. The translatable skills are there. He has proven he can adjust to the ball (grabbed a pair of picks as a Junior) and God Bless the West Hancock staff for doing such a consistent job in teaching all of their DB’s the invaluable skill of run support. Dooley had 50 tackles a year ago and popped a pair of fumbles loose. It’s too early and there still too many variables to say without equivocation that Peyton Dooley will be a Superstar Defensive Back in 2018. But if he does become the best DB in Western Illinois next Fall, color me the least surprised Dude here.
Offensively, the equation is pretty unique. The Titans have an Infinity Stone Fullback in Bryce Wilson (more on him in a bit) but also fairly, as many preseason questions as we’ve seen from this crew on that side of the ball in a long, long time. Outside of Wilson, the only proven Offensive Commodities here are a pair rising Senior Offensive Linemen in Julian Brooks and Logan Speer and a passes-the-eye-test Tight End in Wyette Casey who to this point has caught but a singular pass to date. So is the glass half-full or half-empty? I think that depends entirely on how much stock you put in giving Jim Unruh the best power runner in the region (and one who might rank when all is said and done with any he coached in his Carthage/IW/Titan days) and trusting the Hall of Fame Play Caller to figure out the rest. The historic paradigm here would suggest things will be just fine.
A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION: Given his low-slung 5’6” profile and his squat rack enhanced quads, Bryce Wilson is the most punishing tackle in Tri-State Football. That is provided you can catch up the kid to even attempt wrapping him up. Bryce is a former speed Wing who fell in love with the weight room and turned himself into a frightening hybrid monster; like a football cross-pollination of a Ferrari and a Sherman Tank. The end result last Fall was a kid who carried the ball an impressive 195 times in the Wing-T for 195 yards and 20 touchdowns. That’s eight yards per carry production/burst from the kid every Opponent targets first in their game plan, given the historic importance of the Fullback in an Unruh-called Offense. It’s insane production. And as Travis Cook is quick to point out, Wilson was still learning the nuances of playing Fullback last season and made correctable mistakes. In short, he should be better at something he was already the standard setter for a year ago. He’s already stronger, repping 225 pounds in the off-season at a rate that would make most NFL Linebacker Prospects blush. But let’s not also mince words when it comes to Bryce here either. He’s going to have to be measurably better this year to be even remotely as productive as he was as a Junior because no player in our region will receive more defensive attention. Jirehl Brock has the luxury of having proven pieces around him at Quincy High. Bryce does not at this juncture. His leadership wearing that difficult mantle will be tone setting here.
QUESTIONS THAT REQUIRE ANSWERS: Cultivating alternative attacking weapons around Wilson, as mentioned above, is the knife-edge upon which this season is built. Juniors Drew Martens and Dylan Adams as well as Senior Kade Cook hold considerable promise and more than a little skill moving forward. Now it’s all about production in application.
The Titans graduate a really productive, hyper-underrated Quarterback in Bryce Buckert who merited and received great confidence from his coaching staff. It probabl doesn’t get mentioned enough the size of the shoes he leaves for his replacement. Jared Little has Quarterback Bloodlines and a nice developmental two year window here to grow. I have to think the West Hancock staff finds inventive ways to use Peyton Dooley to help out their young signal-caller in spreading the field and thinning out the defense box.
There will be three new starters on the Offensive Line and as good as both Brooks (6’ 220 lbs) and Speer (6’3” 225lbs) looked in windows in helping lead the Titan Offense to 3800 ground yards and 50 touchdowns, those two will be working this season without a safety net and as the newly minted leaders to replace a couple of incredibly physical and super smart ex-teammates. What that looks like absent a Kolton Johnson might be my most daunting concern for this team moving forward.
The ”on-paper” prognosis of the Titan Defense obviously looks spotty given the graduation of a couple of all-time Titan level performers. Yet, there’s a part of me that still feels like this could be one of the Top Five units in Tri-State Football if everything falls into place. Interior Line Play will be a litmus test and in some respect, the amount of rise West Hancock coaxes out of Senior Keaton Koltzenburg could be a tipping point to that end. He had some really eye-popping moments even amidst a star-studded cast as Junior. See also his four tackles for a loss. For a team missing Andy Bird and Tyler Korn, reestablishing that surging pop from guard to guard would be a big plus for the Linebacking Corps. But it has got to become a bankable and reliable snap-to-snap commodity. Keaton has the ability. Now it becomes about repeatable consistency. If he gets there, the Titans Linebackers will feast. Speaking of which
THE BREAKOUT GUY: At 6’3” and 195 pounds, Wyett Casey gives the Titans the kind of hulking, Will Fox-styled intimidator who can take the starch out of an offense and make running backs shy from contact. When Travis Cook talks about the kid, you can literally here his mind racing with possibility at the physicality and strength he brings to the mix. Wyett might be just the dude to connect the considerable dots that already exist here. Expect his Workload at Tight End to ratchet up as well. And why not, his only catch a year ago did yield a 35 yard touchdown. Good luck trying to shadow that kid with a Defensive Back in the pass pattern.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: I feel like West Hancock deserves “common law” Conference membership standing in the Clarence Cannon, given the Titans scheduled showdowns with CCC Powerhouses Monroe City, Clark County and Centralia this Fall. Toss in Highlandas well as Carnahan High in St Louis and that makes five Missouri Opponents on a nine game slate. If ever there was an argument for the IHSA to come down off the mount and start solving the scheduling ills that plague its more successful member schools, the Titans are it. Putting those politics aside, however, it’s immediately evident that this will be the toughest slate of regular season games West Hancock has played in the Travis Cook era. As good as last year’s Titan Squad was, I don’t they would have sniffed 9-0 against this slate. So for a less proven and experienced 2018 Titan Squad, strength of schedule is a significant double edged sword. If the Titans come out of this thing 7-2 or even 6-3 in the regular season, that might look like a step backwards for the program cosmetically. But the flip side of that argument is that if the Titans do indeed continue their playoff streak (and I suspect very strongly they will) this will be the most seasoned and big-game ready squad Travis Cook has ever taken into November. And let’s not mince words here: November money games have not been yet kind to this program the last few years. If you can hang and trade blows with a pair of MO Final Four Teams of Monroe and Clark’s ilk, you can play and beat anyone on a given Saturday Afternoon. Sure, it’s a gambit to raise the stakes to this level. One born partially out of necessity but also one I think that shows real dash and guts from Travis Cook and his staff that they believe the next step, to make the ultimate step, is get their kids out of their comfort zone and compete at an elite level. And why not do so when program momentum is at its absolute zenith? So in that spirit, I am holding evaluation of this team (beyond week to week growth, obviously) and its overall potential to what it looks like in Week Ten. I think this roster has the horses to weather the storm and get there. And we know this coaching staff is adroit at player development. Like a pro-golfer, rebuilding his/her swing, the Titans are willing to reintroduce growing pains to achieve a higher, better end game. Don’t be against them.