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Like most high school football coaches, Evanston’s Mike Burzawa is always seeking a 50-50 balance between the run game and the passing game on offense. And the ETHS Wildkits have been able to achieve that kind of balance in the past couple of seasons.
But the signs point to a renewed emphasis on the running game as Evanston attempts to pound its way physically into the Illinois High School Association state playoffs again this fall.
Evanston’s offensive line returns four starters. The Wildkits have a quarterback – Dylan Groff – who is a dual threat and a better runner than most of his counterparts.
All-State receiver Kamau Ransom has graduated and the current roster doesn’t include a receiver that caught even 10 passes last year.
And Burzawa, who was an All-State running back in his playing days in high school, is assuming the play-calling duties this fall now that former assistant Ryan Healy has left the program.
The Wildkits open their season Friday, Aug. 26 at Lazier Field against Indian Trail of Wisconsin and ETHS fans probably shouldn’t expect to see the air filled with footballs. Groff rushed for over 100 yards in last year’s matchup between the two teams, and the Evanston coaching staff considers junior Demarion Timberlake an upgrade at the tailback position compared to last year.
Ideally, the Kits will throw when they WANT to – and not when they HAVE to. And the Kits have been able to achieve that balance the past couple of seasons through the use of play-action aerials that are set up by the ability to run effectively.
“I’m excited about the guys we have coming back in the offensive and defensive lines. We have a couple of three-year starters in the offensive line and a couple of others who have climbed the ladder [to earn starting jobs],” said Burzawa. “In high school football you have to be able to run the ball effectively, and you have to stop the run. That’s where it all starts – up front.
“I believe in the running game. There’s nothing more demoralizing to the other team when they just cannot stop you. And as a former running back, you know I love to run the ball.
“We never want to be one-dimensional [on offense], but with Dylan we have a guy who gives us options. He’s a running quarterback who is also a very good thrower. In high school football you have to adjust to the personnel you have and that’s always been my philosophy. The players lead you to your formula for success.”
On offense, it’s what’s up front that counts, and that includes three-year varsity starters tackles Gabe Rosen (6-foot-7, 335 pounds) and Charlie Kremin (6-4, 290). Both have already shown up on the recruiting radar of college programs – Kremin is looking at Ivy League schools – and Burzawa raves about the work ethic of the two tackles.
“I remember when Gabe was in eighth grade and he asked if he could come in and lift [weights],” Burzawa recalled. “He came out and lifted with guys like Connor Groff and Zach Myers and I haven’t had many eighth graders come in and work like that.
“Both Gabe and Charlie move well and can get out in the screen game. They have high football IQs and they’re powerful run blockers too. They put in the work for four years in the weight room and they’re the hardest-working players on the team. Nobody out-works them.
“Our offensive line in 2018 didn’t give up a sack the entire regular season, so I don’t want to make any comparisons yet. But this group has a chance to be a great offensive line if they all stay healthy.”
Joining Rosen and Kremin as returning starters are guards Elijah Hardigree (6-2, 240) and Cameron Wellington-Knibbs (6-3, 265). Junior Declan Boutross (6-2, 285) has earning the starting nod at center.
Timberlake, at 5-11 and 170, figures to share the rushing load along with classmate Yohanness “Yo Yo” Jean-Francois (5-10, 170). And when it comes to plays offering run-pass options, Groff made a big impression as a junior with his decision-making ability and he thrives on contact when most QBs tend to shy away from being hit.
“He’s a physical player and he has that Walter Payton mentality [of running over defenders instead of avoiding them] when he runs the football,” Burzawa pointed out. “Dylan feeds on contact and he WANTS to run over people. He’s a big part of the running game, and he’s a big part of the passing game. With him and Timberlake and Yo Yo in the backfield we have the backs to keep other teams honest.”
At the other skill positions, the Wildkits spent much of the summer and preseason training camp trying to get Groff on the same page with a new group of receivers. Senior Boaz Lieberman (5-8, 160), with nine catches for 64 yards last year, is the only experienced pass-catcher returning and he’ll likely miss the opener due to a shoulder injury.
Senior Mac Mettee (6-0, 175) will likely start at both wide receiver and safety. Other top receiver candidates are senior Myles Kye (6-0, 160) and senior Preston Brown (6-1, 160). Brown started at defensive back last fall.
“Mac Mettee had an outstanding summer and offseason,” Burzawa said. “He can stretch the defense vertically, or he can be a possession guy. Kye might be our most improved player. Last year he was on our service teams, but he worked on his speed and lifted every single day to earn a starting position. He’s become a very reliable player.
“All of our skill players are new so we struggled somewhat in the summer. It all comes down to timing and the trust they have in each other.”
At tight end, the duties will be divided among senior Darrion Coleman (6-2, 180), junior Ezequiel Delgado (6-0, 210), senior Omari Waldron (6-0, 180) and senior Hank Liss (6-0, 175). Liss won’t be available for the opener due to a baseball conflict as the Wildkits’ ace pitcher.
Senior kicker Evan Siegel (6-1, 175) has a big leg and will handle both the punting and placekicking chores. He booted four field goals during the Orange-Blue intrasquad game, including a 42-yarder.
Safety Waldron ranked as the team’s fifth-leading tackler last fall and heads a secondary that also includes Brown, Mettee, junior Brandon Rosemond (5-9, 165) and junior Keron Pryor (5-8, 170). “They’re a bit undersized as a group, but they have the speed and toughness we need,” said Burzawa. “They can get off blocks and make tackles. We need them to get to the ball, and to show up in a bad mood.”
Vacancies created by the graduation of most of the linebacking corps will be filled by senior Terrell Williams (6-0, 185), Jean-Francois, senior Brennan Ptak (5-8, 175), and senior Jin Kramer (6-0, 200), among others.
Ptak also ranks high on Burzawa’s list of “most improved” players. “He didn’t have the year he anticipated last year, and that’s motivated him to be the best he can be this year,” said the ETHS coach. “I’m super excited about the way he has developed. He lifted constantly and worked on his agility. I expect a tremendous season from him.”
The Wildkits will lean on players like returning starters John Toledo (6-1, 305) and Flo Feldman (6-2, 250) in the defensive line. Expect the rotation up front to also feature Coleman, senior Josh Eddy (6-1, 320), junior Destiny Ekwebelan (5-9, 255) and senior Mike Bester (6-0, 255).
Evanston’s 2022 schedule includes road trips to Libertyville (week 2) and Prospect (week 3), along with a home game against Barrington (week 4) before the Central Suburban League South division slate starts.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult schedules we’ve had in a long time, but we can’t worry about who we play week 8 or week 5, or looking too far ahead. We have to prepare for each [individual] game every week,” said the coach. “We’re excited to play some top programs. Now we have to rise to the occasion and give a second effort in everything we do.”