Evanston’s football team will field one of the biggest offensive lines in school history when the Wildkits open the 2015 season at home on Friday night versus Proviso West.
If it also turns out to be one of the BEST offensive lines in school history, a return to the Illinois High School Association state playoffs is likely.
Returning starters Jonathan Connerly-Bey (6-foot-3, 270 pounds), Naquan Jones (6-4, 310), Frank Zoltan (6-2, 245), Morgan Brown (6-1, 250) and Christian Nielsen (6-2, 260) bring more experience than any other unit in the Central Suburban League South division and Evanston’s hopes to at least reverse last year’s disappointing 3-6 campaign will rest on their broad shoulders.
“In football it all starts up front,” said ETHS head coach Mike Burzawa, whose team missed postseason play for the first time since 2009 last fall. “As a team, I sense that this is a group that’s hungry to avenge last year. The attitude and effort has been great in our training camp.
“I’m really excited about our offensive line. They’re all coming back with another year under their belts (Nielsen and Brown started as sophomores in 2014) and they’re like a family within our (team) family. It’s a tight-knit and special group, and I know having those guys out there in front of him will give our quarterback (Central Michigan recruit Matt Little) a lot of confidence.”
Jones, who has made a college commitment to Michigan State University, is a two-way standout on offense and on defense. But the hub of the offensive line is the unsung hero, Nielsen, whose studious approach to the game is a bit unusual for a lineman.
“Christian has been a great leader for us, on and off the field,” said Burzawa. “He’s a co-captain and he makes all of the calls for us on the line and he’s all muscle physically. He’s really a student of the game, too. He’s really a technician — the way he played last year as a sophomore was amazing — and he has the ability to be really nasty in the trenches.
“Christian is a special young man who’s respected by everyone. He really embodies what we want an Evanston football player to be.”
Evanston’s uneven season last year came as the defense started strong, then faded while the offense came on strong to average 30 points a game. A better balance between the two units is one of the goals Burzawa and his staff will try to achieve this time around.
Leading rusher Micquel Roseman (95 carries, 572 yards, 5 touchdowns) returns but may have to share the load more with senior Travian Banks. The speedy Banks provided the highlight of Evanston’s intra-squad scrimmage last week when he returned a kick 90 yards for a touchdown, flashing the playmaking potential that made him a scoring machine on the sophomore level.
Banks, who will play his collegiate football at Miami of Ohio, could get more touches on offense after an Achilles injury slowed him down for much of last year. He still played shutdown defense at cornerback and he’s the squad’s leading returning receiver (12 catches for 107 yards), too.
He’s still waiting to score his first varsity touchdown.
“Tray understands that he has to rise up for us this year,” said Burzawa. “He has to get it done on offense and on defense and on special teams for us to be successful. God has blessed him with tremendous speed and athleticism. It’s really been remarkable to watch the progress he’s made from his freshman year. He’s grown so much and he’s become a selfless player.
“Because of that Achilles problem he didn’t have the explosiveness he had as a sophomore. He’ll be more of an impact player this year. He’s extremely motivated to reach his potential.”
Also in the mix at running back is senior Kendall Coleman. And the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Little is expected to diversify his game as a ball-carrying threat this year after passing for more than 1400 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior.
Little threw only 3 interceptions in 207 passing attempts while working with mostly senior receivers last year. He’ll have to get on the same page with another new group this year, led by senior TeArthur Hunt and 6-5 junior Elyjah Williams.
“Our receiving group doesn’t have a lot of experience,” Burzawa admitted, “but they do have a lot of potential.”
Linebackers Immanuel Woodberry and Jalan Jenkins, along with backs Roseman and Banks, will add a veteran presence to the defense. Justin Tobin should open some eyes on the defensive line and senior safety Griff Jensen may have been the most impressive defender on the entire team in preseason workouts.
“Griff is a young man who really worked his tail off to get better. He worked on his strength, he worked on his speed and he really understands what we’re trying to do on defense,” Burzawa said. “He’s really earned a starting job.”
Burzawa has taken over as the squad’s defensive coordinator following the untimely death of former coach Steve King last August.
“We’re a little less experienced on defense than we were last year, so our No. 1 goal is that we want to be a sound defense,” the coach said. “Our main goal is to honor Coach King by become 1 Pack. He brought that Wolfpack mentality to us from Michigan. That’s our biggest challenge as I see it, to become 1 Pack.”