Uncertainty surrounds the start of every high school football season and that’s what keeps coaches up late at night, watching film, reviewing depth charts and generally thinking about what might happen once the hitting is for real.

Evanston Township High School head coach Mike Burzawa is embracing the uncertainty that comes from the fact that the Wildkits, like every other program in Illinois, are coming off a pandemic-induced “half” season last spring and only return a half dozen starters from a team that posted a 3-3 record.

That uncertainty has been present every day since preseason training camp began a couple of weeks ago at ETHS. The Wildkits have been plagued by a number of hamstring and quad injuries, to the point where Burzawa isn’t sure who’ll suit up for practice from one day to the next.

One thing is certain. Evanston’s starting lineup on offense and defense for Friday’s 7 p.m. season opener at Indian Trail in Kenosha won’t be the same as the lineup for Week 5 against New Trier in the Central Suburban League South division opener.

Those nagging injuries that have kept various players out of practice will prevent some future starters from playing Friday, because they won’t have logged enough preseason practice time under Illinois High School Association regulations. So there are plenty of opportunities for whoever the next man up is at any given position.

And, Coach Burzawa pointed out while taking a break from the hectic start of the school year, there’s a big difference between the circumstances surrounding last year and this year.

“Last year, with the experience we had, nobody was going to let their [starting] positions get taken from them,” he said. “This year the phone’s ringing for a lot of them. We’ll see who answers the call.

“We’re pretty young in terms of varsity football experience. And at this point, due partly to the injuries, we’re still competing at every position across the board, from safety to the linemen to the quarterback position. I think competition brings out the best in everyone. Our situation with our personnel is changing day to day, and for me as a coach, that’s exciting.

“I love watching juniors climb the ladder and work their way into starting jobs. That’s the process a lot of them go through. We only have a few positions that are solidified right now and so much is up in the air that it’s really been exciting to watch training camp this year.

“We’ll see who will make a difference for us. We need everyone to be all in this year when it comes to making a commitment, because we have a lot of milestones we want to achieve.”

Burzawa, entering his 14th season as ETHS head coach, and his staff will fill in the gaps around prospective University of North Carolina recruit Sebastian Cheeks at linebacker; three-year starting quarterback Sean Cruz; 6-foot-6, 335-pound junior offensive lineman Gabriel Rosen; and a defensive secondary headed by multi-talented senior playmakers Kamau Ransom and Mark Canon Jr.

That group offers plenty of star power – if they all stay healthy.  But even those potential standouts will face challenges for playing time on a daily basis.

Cruz was the first sophomore to earn the starting quarterback job from the start of the season in program history two years ago, and last year completed 59% of his pass attempts for 9 touchdowns and 843 yards over the shortened six-game season. Cruz also rushed for 133 yards. But he faced a challenge when Dylan Groff was promoted midway through the year, and Groff threw 4 TD passes in limited action and showed he had the moxie of a varsity quarterback even as a sophomore.

Now Groff is a junior itching to take the position as a starter, and still another junior, Hank Liss, could also emerge as the best option at quarterback once he’s healthy.

“There is definitely competition at quarterback, and all three of them bring different skill sets to the table,” said Burzawa. “Sean had a very good summer for us, Dylan got some good experience the second half of the season last year, and Hank Liss has been slinging the ball all over Lazier Field ever since he was a freshman. Once he catches up to the others [learning the offense after spending most of his summer with the varsity baseball program], he’ll bring a whole different skill set and a gunslinger mentality.

“I think Dylan’s strengths are his leadership and his command in the huddle. He has a better understanding of the offense now and he’s a physical runner [at 6-1, 195]. He’ll also help us on the defensive side of the ball [at linebacker].”

Ransom and Canon Jr. took turns auditioning for the team’s highlight film during the 7-on-7 portion of the summer schedule. Ransom caught a team-high 23 passes for 393 yards and 4 TDs last spring and should pile up much bigger numbers no matter who the quarterback is, and he and Canon Jr. will anchor a secondary that could be one of the best in the Chicago area by the end of the season.

Other receivers to watch include senior Jaydon Griffith (6-0, 205), who has opened eyes with his athleticism, along with senior Jett Watson (5-10, 165), senior Anthony Felecan (6-0, 180) and juniors Boaz Lieberman (5-8, 160) and John “Mac” Mettee (6-0, 165).

Senior Gio Milam-Pryor will take over at the tailback position, adding a speed element as, at 5-8 and 170 pounds, he’s more likely to run away from enemy defenders than over them. He’ll also start at defensive back, which will open up offensive opportunities for junior Skyler Lee Jr. (5-9, 175) and senior Jaheem Cochrane (5-10, 200).

“Gio played the slot for us last because he’s a team player and that’s where we needed him,” said Burzawa, “but he’s mostly played running back during his career and he’s a natural there. He runs with great energy, has great vision and really finishes his runs.”

Up front, Rosen may shift from tackle to guard depending on the health and availability of other hopefuls in the offensive line. Returning starters David Sanchez (5-8, 230) and Sheldon Kinzer (5-10, 235) can also be counted on, with a two-way battle at center between junior Cameron Wellington-Knibbs (6-3, 265) and senior Zach Jacque (6-1, 190) still to be decided.

Also in the mix are senior Carl Stegen (6-3, 225) and junior Elijah Hardigree (6-2, 230).

Plenty of new faces are present on the defensive side of the ball. “We have a lot of open positions, especially up front,” Burzawa admitted. “We’re really shuffling a lot of guys around right now.”

Canon Jr. can play either safety spot and will serve as the “quarterback” in his third year as a starter on the last line of defense. Liss could join him at one of the safety slots, with Milam-Pryor and Ransom at the cornerback slots.

Challenges for playing time will come from senior Axel Mueller, junior Preston Brown, Lieberman and versatile junior Omari Waldron, who could make an impact at safety, cornerback or outside linebacker.

Cheeks leads a linebacking corps that also includes Groff and senior Sam Adeoye (6-0, 175), a hard hitter. It’s a deep (but untested) group that also features senior Elijah Salamon (6-1, 225), senior Angelo Arnold (6-0, 225), junior Jian Kramer (6-0, 200) and senior Ladell Allen (6-0, 195).

Junior Flo Feldman, who came on strong at the varsity level at the end of last year, is one of the leading candidates (at 6-2, 230) to start on the defensive line along with Salamon, Sanchez, Tyrell Williams (6-0, 195) and Anthony Joyner (6-1, 200).

Evanston’s depth also extends to the special teams where kickers Jason Nelson and Ben Barney are neck-and-neck to date. Both booters are seniors and kicked PATs last year in games while backing up graduated starter Fred Eberhart.

Limited to only five conference games and one non-conference contest by the pandemic last spring, Evanston will resume a “regular” schedule this fall. The opener at Indian Trail will mark the first time the Wildkits have played an out-of-state foe since the 1965 season, with non-conference games against Libertyville, Palatine and Fremd to follow in order before conference play starts.