2022 Central Illinois High School Football prospectus


Clutch Sports Media 2022 High School Football prospectus


The day has finally arrived.


It’s week one of high school football across the state of Illinois. Need to know what to expect?


Clutch Sports Media has you covered with detailed previews of 24 teams from across Central Illinois, including the entire Mid-Illini conference and area Big 12 schools.


MID-ILLINI


Metamora


The Metamora Redbirds suffered an end to their season which no football team wants to endure in 2021. After starting 5-0, the Redbirds were flying high in the Mid-Illini but tough matchups, coupled with an injury to starting quarterback Connor Willerton, grounded Metamora as they lost their last quintet of games.


Expectations are always high on Route 116 though, and Metamora is hungrier than ever to win early in the season to put the losing streak away.


A few players on Metamora find themselves in new spots, including senior Kaden Hartnett, who transitions from one of the Redbirds’ top receivers to quarterback.


Hartnett was a member of the Mid-Illini All-Conference squad at wideout in 2021, hauling in 24 catches for 479 yards. Now, Hartnett returns to quarterback, a position he played as a freshman and sophomore with the ‘Birds.


Senior wide receiver Noah Symmonds could be a top target for Hartnett, in addition to tight end Dalton Shuda. Senior Kam Davis factored into the running games at times last season, and should complement Hartnett in the backfield.


The Redbirds consistently boast great size and strength on their offensive line, which opened up lanes for now-graduated tailbacks Ethan Petri and Garrett Taylor.


Metamora lost four of its five starters in the trenches, but senior and three-year starter Ben Wallace is a massive presence, both figuratively and literally, on the O-line. He’ll stay a Redbird following the year, as he recently committed to Illinois State.


Wallace also figures to be a factor on the defensive side of the ball along with Shuda, who will step up at linebacker to fill the shoes of four graduated seniors at the position.


The Redbirds start their season with two sturdy non-conference opponents by traveling to Peoria week one and hosting LaSalle Peru week two. The local matchup with Peoria marks the first time the squads have met since their playoff matchup in 2014, which the Lions won 24-20.


Metamora opens up Mid-Illini play with a rivalry date on the road at Washington, before taking on Morton at home in week four.


Pekin


The Dragons are aiming to qualify for the 7A postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2015-16, when they combined to mount an 11-9 record between the two seasons. Last year’s team nearly matched that win total in one go with a breakout 8-3 mark, leading to high expectations for the Dragons’ 2022 campaign.


Head coach Doug Nutter has plenty of options at his disposal as he enters his 15th season at the helm of the Dragons’ program, including senior standouts in running backs Kanye Tyler and Tanner Sprecher, quarterback Scotty Jordan and wide receiver Bo Benassi.


But the Dragons’ attack will begin with good, old-fashioned dirty work.


“Everybody knows about Kanye [Tyler] and [Tanner] Sprecher and Scotty Jordan,” Nutter said. “It all starts up front with us, year in and year out it starts with that offensive (and) defensive line, you know, those guys doing the dirty work to make those guys shine on Friday nights.”


Jordan finds himself at the helm of an offense that has weapons at every corner and is focused on taking the group as far as they can go.


“The yards and touchdowns, those come as the [year goes on],” Jordan said. “That's what everyone focuses on, but for myself, I would rather be more efficient.”


Tyler and Sprecher, meanwhile, keyed the Dragons’ attack last fall, with Tyler rushing for nearly 700 yards in the first three weeks of the season alone.


The run game will be crucial if the squad wants to advance further into the 7A playoffs this fall.


“We know what position we pride ourselves in,” Tyler said. “We understand that we have a target on our backs this year. And I mean, we're embracing it. We've been practicing hard every day and practicing against great players, and I feel like it's making us mentally tough and physically tough.”


Washington


Year in and year out, the Washington Panthers compete for a Mid-Illini title and represent the conference well in the postseason. In 2022, it might take some extra effort to get there.


Washington returns just two starters from its 2021 quad, which posted a 5-2 conference record and made a run to the state quarterfinals. The Panthers’ 2022 graduating class included impact players such as WR/CB Drew Lewis, WR Issac Mapson, QB Noah Berlett, FB/LB Cade Biedscheid and RBs Thomas Borges and Jack Limas.


Senior linebacker EJ Phillips, who will miss the Panthers’ week one contest, is the lone returner on defense. Henry Worrick, a junior lineman, returns on offense.


“There’s some guys that have experience that popped into games as a two, or when we were up in games,” Panthers’ coach Darrell Crouch said. “It’s just a lot of unknown factors of how our guys are going to play. A lot of guys are starting for the first time at the varsity level.”


Many eyes are fixated on the Panthers’ QB spot to open the season, as Preston Nelson, a highly touted junior, transferred to Washington from Wisconsin over the summer. Jake Stewart, who served as a backup to Berlett last season, is expected to receive a large percentage of the snaps to open the season.


However, Crouch states that the position is far from set in stone.


“I talked to those guys after our scrimmage game,” Crouch said. “I said ‘Right now, I’m going to insert you both in games until somebody shows me they’re hot and they’re gonna get it done,’ and then I’ll go that way.”


If Nelson were to jump into the starting spot, Stewart would become a top target for Washington’s air attack.


Elsewhere on offense, Seth Carbough and Tyler Brown are expected to make an impact at receiver. Kainon McQueary and Jacob Walker will be featured in the run game, in addition to sophomore Tyler Humphery.


A position of concern, according to Crouch, is offensive line.


“That’s where we’re probably thinnest,” Crouch said. “That’s going to be the challenge. If somebody goes down, I’m looking at maybe six guys to play those five spots.”


Defense isn’t expected to be as much of a struggle, as the Panthers have a solid unit of linebackers, led by Phillips and Jace Harlan. The defensive line is also set to be a strength.


Washington will be tested early by opening the season against four straight playoff teams from last season: Highland at home, Kankakee on the road, rival Metamora at home and conference-power Pekin away.


“Those are two big tests right off the bat with some young guys,” Crouch remarked. “Then, you step into our conference, which is definitely never a joke… those will be a big test to try and get through those games and grow up really fast.”


Morton


Well…how about that? The Morton Potters recorded their best season in school history, where they went 10-3, earned a No. 7 seed in the IHSA 5A playoffs, and toppled previously undefeated Morris and Mahomet-Seymour in postseason play. The Potters ran into a buzzsaw against state runner-up Kankakee in the state semifinals but head coach Tim Brilley is grateful after turning around a program that went winless shortly after he took over.


“It was a prideful experience and I was very happy for our community and our players to be a part of that,” Brilley said. “That was our goal when I took over here seven years ago as head coach.”


All-state running back Seth Glatz is now with the Western Illinois Leathernecks, leading to speculation if the Potters can repeat their performance but their returnees now know the path to state.


“You just got to remember how you got to that point and get that back to that on a day-by-day basis as best as you can,” Brilley said.


Attempting to fill the Glatz-sized hole in the offense is a committee of running backs with elusive Carl Whitaker and bruiser Brett Michel leading the charge. Quarterback Layne Kaufman is no longer around either, but the Potters like junior Jude Hart’s combination of rushing ability and throwing power to take over.


Brilley said Morton hangs its hat running the ball and that doesn’t expect to change, but the Potters could have more balance between the rush and pass this year to keep defenses off-balance.


All-conference lineman Ian Mutchler leads a deep group of three returning O-line starters and a defensive line that will run five deep in their 3-4 scheme. Alongside Mutchler is Jack Stump, who looks to start at defensive end and tight end.


The Potters’ hefty load of returners don’t stop there. Blake Shoemaker and Noah Losey lead Morton’s linebackers, a group that Brilley hailed as one of the best on the team. Whitaker and fellow senior Conner Hines are both two-year starters and will constitute two of Morton’s three-safety package.


“We’re just going to take everything game-by-game,” Shoemaker said. “We’re gonna hit hard and we’re going to roll just like we did last year.”


The Potters, along with Washington, shared the Mid-Illini conference title last year after a 30-year drought in Morton. If the offense is as dependable as it was in 2021, Morton could be staring down another title, but they know it won’t be easy.


“It’s anyone's league and we won it for the first time in 30 years last year, so that kind of tells you that anything can happen if you do things the right way,” Brilley said.


Dunlap


The Dunlap Eagles come off a 5-4 campaign last year, in which they collected three shutout wins by at least 39 points, but also suffered a trio of losses by more than 20 points.


The Eagles fell 28-20 to southern Illinois power Mascoutah in the first round of the IHSA 5A playoffs last year and head coach Brett Cazalet says consistency is paramount in order to set themselves up for a better draw in the postseason.


“We had nights where we played very well and nights where we looked like we were a freshman team in varsity jerseys,” Cazalet said. “Last year in some games, we’d flow pretty well offensively and the next week, we couldn’t get a first down. It’s just finding that consistency and continuity on offense; I think that’s the biggest thing for us this season.”


On paper, Dunlap is well on their way to doing that this year behind four returning seniors on the offensive line: Sam Morgan, Diego Pantoja, Brody Harrison and Jake Shake. Cazalet says the group is smart, committed and has taken the weight room seriously over the summer.


The Eagles’ offense will be one of their biggest strengths this year because behind the experienced line is senior quarterback Madyn Burke, who gets the chance to run the offense by himself after appearing intermittently at QB the last two seasons. Graham Glover, a first team all-Mid Illini selection in 2021, and Evan Marmion headline a group of senior wide receivers that Burke can throw to.


“Graham’s a special talent,” Cazalet remarked. “I think he’ll be one of the top players in the conference without question. We’ve got to find different ways to get him the ball and we’ll [do that] a lot of different ways.”


Dunlap perennially boasts one of the best rushing attacks in the Mid-Illini and senior Brayden Orr is ready to fill the shoes of graduated senior and all-conference second teamer Joe Carmean.


“This year, I feel like we’re going to be a good mix of run and pass,” Cazalet said. “The ball isn’t hitting the ground in practice like it did last year. We just look much more in-tune to what we’re used to.”


The Eagles promoted defensive coordinator Zach Simmons from JV and he’ll have a talented, but largely unproven, group on defense to work with. Simmons ran Dunlap’s varsity defense in the Eagles’ 48-0 shutout of Canton last year.


Middle linebacker Drew Stone, defensive lineman Sam Morgan and Glover in the secondary are the lone returning starters on the Dunlap D. Hitting the ground running with the new group will be a key for the Eagles, who start the season with a challenging slate of Galesburg, Rock Island and Pekin.


“When you schedule two teams that have had success in your non-conference, you’re definitely going to find out where you are heading into the conference,” Cazalet said. “Our conference is always very strong and I fully expect Pekin to be right there at the top this year. That’s the good thing about playing good teams is they kind of expose your weaknesses and you’re able to work on them sooner.”


Canton


The Canton Little Giants are looking to bounce back in a big way this season. After finishing last year with a 3-6 record, Canton is hungry for more with head coach Nick Wright entering his third year leading the program. After losing some critical assets from 2021, Wright looks to rebound and move forward. Confidence is key, and there's plenty of it for the many great returning players.


Last season, Canton had the services of many talented seniors. Jake Miller, Trevor Putman, and Nick Oldfield are just a few out of a sterling senior class. Now with their departure, Canton has some big shoes to fill.


Luckily, a big senior class is back for 2022, and Wright expects around 21 seniors to be ready to go. Part of the returning group is the scary backfield duo of LaShawn Wallace and Joseph Norton.


“LaShawn and Joe coming back is huge, both are quality options at running back,” Wright said.


Along with them, Cale Barnhart steps into the starting quarterback role. Despite limited action in the past two seasons, Canton is confident in their new quarterback. Hungry and ready for a big season, Barnhart looks to be the ideal choice for the position.


Other important returners include defensive backs Mason Rader, Gaige Surrells, and Isaiah Session. Coach Wright is also very excited Norton is returning for defense.


“Joe Norton is a big strength playing outside, at safety. He's all over the field that's why we like him back there,” he said.


Returning also are lineman Braden Colbert and Malakai Correa, who will play linebacker and tight end.


The strong group of returners will be relied on heavily, but many newcomers will get their chance to shine. In addition to linebackers, both lines will have many new faces this season. A few newcomers to watch include lineman Hunter Grubb and Korbin Woerly, both juniors.


Additionally, a handful of players, such as receivers Dylan Watts and Kaden Otto, could prove significant in expanded roles. The Little Giants have plenty of options at each position but continue working to find the best possible function for each player.


Canton has a demanding schedule ahead that starts against a very challenging Eureka team.


“They have a lot of quality guys coming back; that's why we picked them up,” Wright said. They are a quality football program,”.


The schedule continues to get more challenging as Canton travels to Morton and Metamora early in conference play. Despite this challenge, Coach Wright still expects to be plenty competitive.


“We set realistic goals for ourselves, goal number one is to compete in every game. Goal two is getting a playoff berth,” Wright said.


Limestone


Limestone alumnus Jeff Schmider takes the reins as head coach as he tries to instill pride and competitiveness back to a Rockets team that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2015.


His plan to reach that goal? Play football in a way that reflects the Bartonville community.


“We didn’t have the greatest athlete in the world out here when I played, but we were tough kids,” Schmider said. “We’re trying to get that identity back here; that blue-collar and take-your-lunch pail-to-work mentality.”


The Rockets have put their nose to the grindstone with increased turnouts and team-wide enthusiasm during summer weightlifting and attending five 7-on-7 camps. Once the lights of Friday night turn on, fans can expect Limestone to be a speedy team with a diverse group of playmakers.


“We’ve been in the weight room a lot this summer and getting very big,” junior linebacker Connor Pilgrim said. “There’s been years in the past where we’ve slacked but all around, we’re much better this year as a team in wanting to win.”


A Rocket eager to turn the program around is senior two-way lineman Hector Izaguirre. He’ll have an important job in protecting 6-foot-4 junior quarterback Caleb Bieneman and opening holes for tailbacks Izzy Nunez, Cameron Peterson and Pilgrim.


“There is an intent to win; we’re not going to play football; we’re going to go win games,” Izaguirre said. “We’re more than athletes this year; we’re beasts.”


Bieneman has a healthy menu of fast receivers to choose from, including senior Virgil Powell, junior Kenyon Johnson and junior Chase Harper.


“This year I think we’re going to be a pretty fast football team,” Schmider said. “This year, we’re going to be able to spread the ball around a little bit and I think, by the end of the season, there will be some kids’ names you’ll know.”


Defensively, look for Limestone to have good strength and speed on the line. With all-Mid Illini linebacker Frank Driscoll graduating, Pilgrim appears ready to slide in and contend for the same honor.


“What I’m most excited for this season is to fly around and hit some people and have fun,” Pilgrim said. “I just want to get a couple wins under a belt and help the program and the community.”


Is this the year that the Rockets blast off and surprise people? It’s too early to tell, but having a member of stellar Rockets teams from the past in charge with Schmider, the program will know what it takes to win.


“There’s no reason that Limestone can’t get back to the way they were,” Schmider said.


East Peoria


East Peoria has one goal in mind entering the new season: Progress.


Without a win since the 2018 season, certainly the focus is on breaking that streak. More importantly, the focus is on building back a team that has lacked success for many years.


Progress has been made in the most recent seasons, but there is much more to accomplish. Third year coach, Dustin Jefferson, continues to revamp and reshape the Raider football program.


Last season, East Peoria wasn’t able to pick up a victory. Although they did find themselves in some close contests, it wasn’t enough to break the losing streak. The Raiders los tsome key offensive assets from a season ago, including quarterback Damien Brown and running back Kenyon Carlton. Despite this, East Peoria returns a good core and has a bigger, younger roster entering the year.


One of the top returning players is dynamic running back Gabe Zeigler-Harris. As a career varsity player, he no doubt has the skill and experience to lead East Peoria towards success.


"I am totally fine with being the senior leader because I feel like I fit this role. I’m the most experienced guy and I love having fun with my teammates," Zeigler-Harris said.


He won't be alone as a key returning piece this season.


"Some key players on our team are definitely Nathan Nesbitt, he’s been a starter for us the past couple seasons and I believe he’s gonna have a big senior year, also Brodie Windell," the senior added.


Nesbitt, the Raiders’ top lineman and Windell, who could see time at quarterback or on the offensive line, both return for their third varsity campaigns.


While the seniors will be an important part to this team, a bulk of the roster is made up of young players. Jefferson made a priority to get more incoming freshmen and underclassmen into football. So far, this goal is being accomplished well and turnout for football has improved in each of the last two seasons.


Some of the young players are already making an impact at the varsity level. Zeigler-Harris listed sophomores Joe Clark and Jaiden Seelye, along with Aidin Hindert and Bristen Gore as players who could take large jumps forward in 2022. ".


East Peoria annually has a tough schedule, playing some of the area's top teams from the Mid-Illini. Yet, there are opportunities to pick up a win and the opening three weeks present great opportunities. After squaring off with Streator, whom the Raiders nearly beat in 14-12 defeat last year, Aurora Central Catholic and Limestone occupy weeks two and three.


BIG 12


Peoria High


The pride of Peoria is fired up for the 2022 season with head coach Tim Thornton and his coaching staff once again leading Peoria High. An always-hungry Lions roster looks to get back to the postseason and make some noise in the IHSA playoffs. Who’s back to lead this year's group? What new players are set to break out in the new year?


After losing star running back Eddie Clark to graduation, the Lions have some big shoes to fill. That's not to mention other critical losses including Deatric Pollard, Tim Petty and Cedric Bekum.


Despite this, a solid core returns. Over 20 seniors return to the roster, led by lineman Landon Newby-Holesome and Tejuan Smith, along with skill players Ricky Hearn Jr., Malachi Washington and Kenny Rutherford. These seniors embrace their role as leaders including Newby-Holesome.


“It is a big task but I enjoy the challenge of pushing my teammates and myself to push harder every day and keep elevating our play,” Newby-Holesome said.


This program has plenty of younger players to work with too. After emerging onto the scene as a sophomore, quarterback Tino Gist is poised for a breakout year. Defensive anchor Gary Rutherford should continue to emerge as a junior. Sophomores wide receiver/cornerback TQ Webb and lineman Deuce Thornton will also play pivotal roles.


Ordinarily, the main focus of the Lions would go to the offense as Peoria High has created an explosive scoring attack in the last decade but more attention could go to the other side of the ball. With a stacked group of defensive players, the coaching staff envisions defense playing a significant role in 2022.


“I think we're as good as we’ve been in a long time on defense. We’re extremely improved at the middle linebacker spot,” Tim Thornton said.


The Lions should play well in the trenches, but linebacker and defensive back will provide the biggest punch. Kenny and Gary Rutherford, Eli McFadden and Kevin Roberts are significant parts of the defense.


The Lions have yet another tough slate on the horizon in Big 12 play. In week four, Peoria hosts Twin Cities powerhouse Normal Community. In the weeks following, matchups with Bloomington, Normal West, and Peoria Notre Dame loom large on the schedule.


First though, Peoria High has a critical test right out of the gate. Hosting Mid-Illini powerhouse Metamora, the Lions hit the ground running with their schedule in week one in a highly anticipated Big 12/Mid-Illini crossover game. You can listen to all the live action between Metamora and Peoria on 101.1 ESPN Peoria and ESPNPeoria.com.


Normal Community


Normal Community rampaged through the Big 12 last year with a perfect regular season, their second in five years. The Ironmen earned a 3-seed in the 7A playoffs after being state-ranked for most of the season before being upset by 17th-seeded Algonquin Jacobs and they’ll lean heavily on new faces to follow up the groundwork laid in 2021.


Normal Community loses 11 all-conference picks, including three on the offensive line, four on the D-line and quarterback Chase Mackey who accounted for 1,732 total yards last season.

Who are gonna be “the guys” for the Ironmen this year?


A good start is at the running back position with Chris Taylor, who’s drawing interest from Illinois State, and Tommy Davis. Two of Community’s few returning all-conference picks, the duo combined for over 1,000 yards of offense in 2021, a mark that isn’t out of reach for each to rack up individually this year. Both players averaged over nine yards a carry and, as an added bonus, are huge threats in the kick and punt return game.


Chase Wiese will be the starting signal caller for the young men in orange and has seen a taste of varsity experience when Mackey was out with an injury. Head coach Jason Drengwitz has expressed that there are bunches of good athletes on his team and receivers Elliot Oliver, Cameron Thierry are among them. Add in tight end Zach Ferrante and the Ironmen’s offense might not take as big of a step back as some think.


A large overhaul is on deck for Normal Community’s defensive unit but Cannon Mackey will bring stability to the line. Also slated for increased roles on the Ironmen’s front line are Ferrante, senior Zion Crawford, and junior Dexter Niekamp.


The back seven unit returns some, but not an overload of starting experience. Normal Community’s first few games, starting at O’Fallon and at home against Champaign Central will be key to get the defense in sync.


Ryan Millmore is a luxury for the Ironmen to have at kicker and punter. The senior displayed a booming leg last year with an average of over 40 yards on punts and range of 50 yards on field goals. The senior has gotten interest from Division I programs such as Tennessee, Army, Kansas State, Wake Forest, Indiana, Wisconsin and Air Force.



Peoria Notre Dame


The Irish will be a tough team to match up with this season thanks to a strong group of

ball carriers that fit perfectly into the team's Wing-T offense. Senior fullback Liam Ludolph

headlines a pack that includes Jack Hanley, Phillip Rupiper, Jerimiah Flores and Aidan Lemons.


"We're trying to get better every day," Ludolph said. "I see improvement with our guys. But I feel like we're not there yet."


Leading the way up front is junior lineman Michael McLauglin, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound presence who has put together a terrific body of work in his first two seasons at PND.


"He's going to have a spectacular year," head coach Pat Armstrong said, noting his success at D-1 camps over the summer. "I expect him to be more mature, more aggressive and dominating both sides of the ball."


Peoria Notre Dame’s 2022 campaign begins with an opener – at Manual on August 27 – that feels more important than normal, and not only because of the cross-town rivalry or its Big 12 Conference implications.


The Irish haven't won an opening week game since 2016, when it handed Rock Island Alleman a 62-28 loss. The team's prospects of playing in week two are in doubt after Urbana canceled its varsity campaign last week.


If the Irish can weather the storm to open the season, the middle of the season presents matchups against an eager Bloomington squad, cross-town rival Richwoods and Granite City.


The run to the finish of the regular season presents two pairs of problems in consecutive games against Champaign schools (at Central on September 30 and versus Centennial on October 8) and battles against conference favorites (versus Normal Community on October 15 and at Peoria on October 21).


Normal West


Normal Community may get a lot of the headlines in the Twin Cities, but Normal West is no stranger to success, having put together 12 straight winning seasons. The Wildcats feel like this may be their year to turn the cusp from being simply a playoff team to a great team.


Normal West was a young team last year, returning 14 of their 22 starters from last year, adding to the optimism of a breakthrough year. Eight of the 14 returning starters are on defense, including senior linebacker Brock Leenerman and senior Tanner Cupples at safety, both all-conference selections last year. Cupples will be joined in the defensive backfield by a good group Xavier Edwards, Jacob Davis and Wyanye Hosea.


“We’re pretty excited about the leadership on the back end,” head coach Nathan Fincham said. “This year, you’ll see a fast and physical defense.”


On offense, the Wildcats have six returners and four of them are on the offensive line. They’ll aim to protect quarterback Jaden Mangruem. Normal West will have new blood in their skill positions with Leenerman playing more at tailback this season.


“I feel like we’ll be able to establish a good run game this year,” Leenerman said. “Our O-line is coming back stonier than it’s even been.”


The Wildcats lost senior stud tight end Max Ziebarth but a number of pass catchers like Gavin Camp, Jackson Seal and Michael Williams will give Mangruem options to throw to. With Ziebarth gone though, the Wildcats will be tougher to guard on offense since defenses will have to focus on more than just their departed tight end.


“I feel like everybody will be able to play their role this year and that’s why I think we’ll be better than last year,” Leenerman said.


The Wildcats are chomping at the bit for their week threegame against defending Big 12 champion and crosstown rival Normal Community. If West can pull off a victory in that game, it may be the key that turns the lock to open the door to a Big 12 title.


Bloomington


If you’re looking for a breakout candidate in the Big 12, Bloomington may be one of them after back to back 4-5 records in the two most recent full seasons. Last season was particularly heartbreaking for the Purple Raiders, as they fell a few points short of beating Normal West in week four, dropping the contest 14-10.


Head coach Scott Godfrey knows that even one bad play can be the difference between a chance at a state title and sitting out from the postseason.


“One play or even one guy not doing his job can turn into a touchdown,” Godfrey said. “If we’re able to focus and process the small details well, then I think we’ll put ourselves in a position to be successful.”


The Purple Raiders anticipate that their offense will be strong this year, despite the loss of versatile playmaker Adam Beasley. Quarterback Marcus Griffin threw for just over 300 yards last year, but a full year of QB experience under his belt is something he did not have at this point last year. The signal-caller led Bloomington in rushing last year with 169 carries for 802 yards and nine touchdowns.


Talented receivers Jaxon Deland and Tashawn Ruffin could very well see an uptick in yardage with Beasley’s departure and Griffin throwing them the ball for the second straight year.


Bloomington outgained their opponents on the ground 1,511 to 872 last year and their ground game will feature more of Edgerrin Bausley in 2022.


“They’re really balanced,” head coach Scott Godfrey said of his offense. “As a unit, they’ve really stepped up and improved in some areas.”


Just over half of the Purple Raiders’ starting defense returns but nearly all of their leading tacklers have moved on, including first team all-Big 12 selections Tyus Jackson and Jack Weltha. Deland is Bloomington’s leading returning tackler after a campaign with 26 stops and Ruffin led the Purple and Gold with two interceptions last year.


“We have a lot of production to replace,” Godfrey said. “But we have a good enough nucleus of guys returning to keep that moving.”


Bloomington plays a tough conference slate, with Normal Community, Normal West, Peoria High, Peoria Notre Dame, and Champaign Centennial all on the docket. Their lone non-conference game comes in the season finale against Mahomet-Seymour, who has state title aspirations.


Griffin is an intriguing candidate to watch out for and if he can help the Purple Raiders steal a game or two, Bloomington can open the floodgates into the postseason for the first time since 2018.


Manual


The Manual Rams enter the 2022 season oozing with potential. Longtime coach Dan Fauser stepped away from the program, handing the reins to Peoria High graduate Dennis Bailey. After spending time in recent years as both lineman coach and defensive coordinator for Manual, he now gets a chance to lead the program. His time as a collegiate player and learning from veteran coachFauser will undoubtedly help him in his new role. While thin depth will still have an effect, the Rams have a few more players to work with and some standout returners.


A few key graduating seniors have departed, and the Rams have also lost junior lineman Marques Easley as he transferred to Kankakee but Coach Bailey is eager to see what a strong returning group can do. Career starter Jeremiah Clements returns for his senior year and the big 6-foot-3 senior is a massive force on the line. College football is undoubtedly on his horizon, already with an offer from Western Illinois. He’s joined by returning senior lineman Louis Bailey and Nas King who also bring tremendous size to the Manual trenches.


Other Rams could be set to break out this coming season including Carrion Ferrell, a 6-foot-5 senior receiver, will be highly productive on offense. After being absent for the majority of the past two seasons, Marquis Woodson steps up as quarterback and has shown big flashes over the summer.


“We’ll have a creative identity,” Bailey said of the Rams. “We can run and pass well, We have some explosive athletes. We got a pretty strong line, three guys coming back.”


Much of the new look Manual starts off the field and Bailey recognizes the importance of having a strong team bond. Much of the summer has been about bringing a team and community together with pool days, cookouts and barbecues helping build what Bailey calls a “Ramily”.


When the Rams got to work this summer, they returned to basics. “ [We wanted to] improve on basic fundamentals daily,” Bailey said. “We need to get a consistent tough effort out of the guys.”


As Manual tries to get back to success, they must endure a rigorous schedule. On the Rams schedule, matchups with Peoria Notre Dame, Kankakee, Peoria High and Normal Community will all be brutal tests. While the Rams are often the underdogs, the coaching staff has full expectations to be competitive.


“Just compete. Compete for four quarters. Coach up the fundamentals and turn the effort up,” Bailey said.


Manual opens the year in Peoria, taking on city rival Peoria Notre Dame.


Richwoods


Last year was a rebuilding season for the 1-8 Richwoods Knights, who have historically proven to be a successful program. Although recent years haven’t been as special, there is still great community pride in Knights football. This year, many of the boys in green and white will have a year of varsity experience under their belts as they aim to begin an upward trend in the Big 12.


“Last year, we were very young,” head coach James Ulrich said. “There weren’t many seniors that had played four years of football here at Richwoods and even with some seniors out there, they were only in their second or third year. We went there and tried to coach them up as best as we could.”


The fabric of the Knights has seemed to make some big improvements from last year. 15 starters return for Richwoods, including senior quarterback Greg Burnside who threw for 200+ yards on two occasions last year. If he can develop further, Richwoods is a sure bet to be better in 2022.


“He’s been a leader,” Ulrich said. “He’s a multi-sport athlete. He was out competing in the offseason but he was out encouraging other kids and leading by example. He’s tried to get people together on the same page schematically on both sides of the football.”


At Burnside’s disposal will be wide receiver Jaivyn Moore, a junior who will be a special player on both sides of the ball, according to Ulrich. Cory Wysinger, an honorable mention all-Big 12 selection, and wideout Darrin Dusett round out the nucleus of Richwoods’ scoring threats. Offensive lineman Couri Adkisson anchors the offensive line at 6-foot-7, 280 pounds and has potential to do real damage in the trenches.


“He passes the eye test for a lot of colleges,” Ulrich said.


The Knights match their abundance of returning experience on the defensive end with all of their starting back seven and a few linemen with varsity experience back for another ride in 2022. Teams will have a tough time getting through the linebackers, made up primarily of seniors Kaizon Davis and Sabri Qattum.


Tackling will be a key focus for the Knights this year but with added enthusiasm to work in the offseason and another year of physical growth for their returners, Ulrich feels like they can turn the corner.


“Bringing back seven defensive starters is a pretty big deal, even if they did have their issues,” Ulrich said. “The whole speed of the game slowed for them and they’ve done all the right things in the offseason to become more physical.”


On paper, the Knights are a team with the pieces in place to be primed for a comeback. Obviously, nothing is for certain until their opening kickoff of the season against Bloomington, but even a slight improvement can pay dividends for years to come.


“Right now, where we are compared to last year is worlds apart and the kids have been really committed,” Ulrich said. “We struggled in the Big 12 as a program since we joined but we’re getting better. That’s the goal.”


HEART OF ILLINOIS


Deer Creek-Mackinaw


Deer Creek-Mackinaw stood above the 2A field in 2016; the Chiefs claimed the state championship after a 13-1 campaign.

Choppier waters followed and, though another playoff appearance followed, the program fell into a dry spell with just five wins in the next three seasons. Those days appear behind the program now as third-year head coach Cody Myers looks to guide the program to its second straight playoff berth.


A strong offensive line bolstered Dee-Mack in 2021 and helped them to a 7-4 finish and 23 points per game. Half of last season's group is now graduated, leaving speedy senior Connor Huff to anchor the new-look group.

"He's put on 25 pounds of muscle this offseason and gotten in much better shape," Myers said. "He's had a successful summer and we're really excited about what he can do."


Though the trenches have been refurbished, the Chiefs' two top rushing options from 2021 return: junior Brent Denniston and senior Lucas Blumeyer. The former ran for 1,147 yards

and 16 touchdowns on 198 carries.


"I think he's going to come back as a junior to do the same thing, still compete and hustle with us," Huff said. Blumeyer recorded more tackles than any returning defensive player with 65 last season.


Wins are not easily obtained in the Heart of Illinois Conference, but the Chiefs are routinely in the hunt for conference hardware. A chance to make an early statement comes on Sept. 2 when 2021 HOIC champion Tri-Valley visits Jim McDonald Field.


"We've worked really hard this offseason and we're excited to build on what we did last season," Blumeyer said. "We're just excited to play football."


If the Chiefs can down the Vikings in the second week of the season, road tests at Ottawa Marquette and El Paso-Gridley follow. Flash forward a bit and the regular-season concludes with a must-see contest on Eureka’s new turf field on October 21.


El Paso-Gridley


The El Paso-Gridley Titans are fresh off the heels of a 5-5 season, where they earned their first berth to the IHSA playoffs since the 2017 season. That same year was the culmination of four straight postseason appearances for the Titans that started when star wide receiver Tanner Benedict was a junior.


Now, at 25 years old, Benedict is beginning his second year as the head coach at El Paso-Gridley and looks back at his first season spent strictly on the sidelines with satisfaction.


“It was great to get back into the playoffs for our kids’ sake,” Benedict said. “[The first week of the playoffs] is so much different than weeks one through nine so being able to experience that was great for our program and for them.”


This year, the Titans are left without much of the senior core that led the charge into the playoffs last year. Benedict says that approximately eight starting spots on defense and more than a handful of starting spots on offense are up for grabs.


“We definitely see ourselves as capable of making the playoffs year in and year out,” Benedict said. “With that being said though, we know that we can’t look too far ahead because there’s just so much uncertainty each year and so we have to do our best to prepare every day. That’s what we tell our kids is that we don’t worry about tomorrow’s practice until we’re done today.”


Two key cogs in Dax Gentes and Cody Langland from last year’s Titans team return for their senior years as linebackers, perhaps El Paso-Gridley’s biggest strength, according to Benedict.


Gentes was also a 2021 starter at running back who will run behind a relatively younger offensive line, while Langland was 2nd team all-Heart of Illinois Conference pick last year and will play more offense in the upcoming campaign.


Fellow 2nd team all-conference pick quarterback Kamren Schumaker earned starts in nine of El Paso-Gridley’s 10 games last season as a sophomore, giving them a solid ability to pass the ball, but Benedict says running the ball will be a hallmark of the Titans this year.


“We definitely want to run the ball, I think that’s the key to success in 2A football,” Benedict said. “We want to control the games through special teams too.”


The Titans’ third phase all starts with Declan Duley, a senior punter who is ranked No. 1 in the country and transferred from Normal University High School after last season. Duley has taken college visits to Alabama, Baylor, Illinois, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Baylor, Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The senior gives the Titans the ability to kick 40, possibly even 50, yard field goals, along with flipping field position with his punts and regularly booming kickoffs into the endzone.


“It’s remarkable how far [Duley] can kick a football and how accurate he is.” Benedict said. “It’ll bring a whole new element to us that a lot of teams probably wish they had.”


In a loaded Heart of Illinois Conference that boasts five other playoff teams from 2021, El Paso-Gridley will have their work cut out for them in order to reach the postseason for the second year in a row. However, once more starters begin to identify themselves, Benedict sees a potential repeat playoff berth in sight.


“We’re playing some good teams every week and that’s what we want. I expect us to compete in every game we play in.”


Eureka


Few things in high school football are scarier than a playoff team that returns a majority of their starters and facing Eureka near Halloween during the IHSA playoffs will add to opponents’ fright. The Hornets went 6-4 last year and while they lost to Paxton-Buckley-Loda in the first round of the postseason, it’s still a noticeable feat for a team that was very young in 2021.


“I think between offense and defense, we started about 20 underclassmen,” head coach Jason Bachman said. “Being able to return that many kids, the expectation is that we’re better than we were last year.”


A mark of 7-2 or above in the regular season is within reach for the Hornets, a team that will resemble the Oregon Ducks from the early 2010’s with their breakneck tempo and speed on offense. Aiding that goal installation of new turf at McCollum Field.


“Our goal is if we can, by the play clock hitting 13, have the ball snapped at that point and be gone,” Bachman said.


Leading the swifty operation will be all-HOIC quarterback Jake Morin, who threw for 1,615 yards and 15 touchdowns while adding 10 scores on the ground. Eureka’s top three receivers, Carson Gold, Justis Bachman and Drew Dingledine, are among the best pass-catching groups in all of Central Illinois.


“I feel like at every position, we have a lot of dogs on this team. It won’t just be one person on the team making all the plays,” Gold said.


Defensively, Eureka returns honorable mention all-state defensive end Dakota Wiegand, who improved his physique even further according to Bachman, and Ben Jablonski on the line. Each member of the secondary was a starter last season, adding to the Hornets’ optimism.


“Defensively, I want to see everyone swarming the football,” Justin Bachman said. “If we get nine hats on the ball, we’re really good and if we don’t, that’s where teams can exploit us a little bit.”


Bachman heavily emphasized Eureka’s need to be more disciplined and to take things week by week in a Heart of Illinois Large conference that is loaded with potential playoff teams. At the top of it is Tri-Valley after the Vikings’ 12-1 season and state semifinal berth.


“Tri-Valley, they’ve been our rivals ever since we were in fifth grade and we’ve gone back and forth since then,” Justis Bachman said. “They’ve gotten us the last few years and we want to get them back for our senior year.”


“You have to win every week if you want to win the conference championship,” head coach Justin Bachman added. “You can’t be 6-3 or 7-2 and have a shot to win it; you’ve got to win every week.”


With the group that Eureka returns, it’s not too far off of a possibility.


Fieldcrest


The Knights are eager to put a winless 2021 season behind them, and their prospects for the 2022 season are strong. A perennial Heart of Illinois Conference powerhouse, last season’s mark stands as an aberration after the program mounted a 16-1 record in the previous two seasons.


There’s optimism for a strong showing in HOIC, especially with incoming head coach Nick Meyer returning to his alma mater.