Plenty of talent returns in NI Big XII

The Northern Illinois Big 12 East — conference of the returning starter.

Kaneland, which has won the division at 5-0 all three years of its existence, returns 15 starters from last year’s squad, nine of them on offense. Coach Tom Fedderly’s Knights enter the season ranked No. 4 in Class 5A according to The Associated Press.

Sycamore, beaten by a miracle Montini finish in the second round of the 5A playoffs to finish 7-4, returns 14 starters. Joe Ryan’s Spartans are No. 5 in Class 5A.

Rochelle, headed by Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer Kevin Crandall, returns 16 starters. The Hubs, 6-4 last year, aren’t on the AP map yet but if Crandall gets that Wing-T stuff going they may get there.

Then there’s Morris. Last year’s 5A runner-up to Montini is on the other end of the spectrum. Of the 22 starters listed going into that championship game, only right guard T.J. Layne was not a senior.

Morris being Morris, that hasn’t scared off Associated Press voters, who list Alan Thorson’s Redskins No. 7 in Class 4A entering the season. As Ryan said, a championship season means five extra weeks of experience for the juniors and top underclassmen.

“You don’t know anything about them,” Ryan said, “but that’s the scary thing, too.”

DeKalb returns skill players Dre Brown and Dylan Hottsmith for new coach Matt Weckler, 31-29 and four playoff appearances in six seasons at Belvidere. At Yorkville another Hall of Fame coach, Karl Hoinkes, enters his third season.

“They’re going to be better because they brought up around eight sophomores last year so it sounds like they’ve got some experience coming back,” Fedderly said of Hoinkes’ Foxes.

“I think we have one of the best conferences year in and year out for 5A,” Fedderly said.

Until someone can do it — and Morris nearly did in Week 9 last year — Kaneland is the team to beat. The Knights return a number of three-year starters including quarterback Drew David, tailback Jesse Balluff, linemen Alex Snyder (actually his fourth year starting) and Shane Jorgensen and middle linebacker Gary Koehring.

The Knights are a load up front, averaging 280 pounds across a three-man defensive line and 260 on offense, which is deceptive since center Tom Van Bogaert goes about 200.

“They’re obviously the team that everybody’s picking to win the league and they deserve that,” Ryan said, whose own club will contend.

Sycamore three-year starting receiver and safety Ben Niemann was offered a scholarship at Northern Illinois — where his father is offensive coordinator — but turned it down for outside linebacker at Iowa. Ryan called the receiver and safety the best skilled-position player he’s had in 10 years with the Spartans.

Sycamore also brings back fellow three-year starters Devin Mottet at quarterback and linemen Derek Stenberg and Evan Short, the latter a 6-foot-3, 295-pound left tackle offered by Northern Colorado.

Among Rochelle’s slew of returners are all-conference lineman Lane Isley, two all-conference defensive backs in Jake Ryan and Evan White and three-fourths of last year’s starting backfield in White, Marquez Felix and quarterback Angel Burciaga.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll be competitive, but the conference is just so competitive, you can be really good this year and be 6-3,” Crandall said. “You’ve just got to play well on Friday and, if you’re healthy, be ready for the playoffs.”

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