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Downers Grove North wins with split-back veer

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Downers Grove North wins with split-back veer

Mount Carmel isn't the only football team that specializes in the split-back veer offense. Downers Grove North has been running the Houston version since 1986 and coach John Wander thinks he has what it takes to punch a ticket to state finals in Champaign this season.

After a 5-1 start, the Trojans lost their last three regular-season games to finish sixth in the seven-member West Suburban Silver Conference. But they bounced back to eliminate previously unbeaten Batavia 38-26 and favored Thornton 29-13 in the first two rounds of the Class 7A playoff.

Downers Grove North (7-4), coming off 1-8, 2-7 and 2-7 seasons, will be an underdog again Saturday when it meets Benet Academy (10-1) in a quarterfinal test in Lisle. So what's new?

"We limped in but that's the way it happened," coach John Wander said. "We played two good games (against Proviso West and Hinsdale Central) but Glenbard West dominated us.

"I credit our conference. We never had an easy game. Six of the seven teams made the playoff. In our conference, you see every offense and defense there is. Our kids were road tested. We run the option. Not a lot of teams run it outside our conference. That's an advantage."

Wander, who became head coach in 2002, picked up the split-back veer from his predecessor, Pete Ventrelli, who introduced it in 1986 after succeeding 31-year veteran Dick Carstens. Ventrelli's 1990 team finished second in the state. Wander, who was Ventrelli's offensive coordinator, used it to win the state title in 2004.

Why the split-back veer? Outside of Mount Carmel, few schools, high school or college, employ the offense. "That's one reason. Other schools don't see the offense very often and they don't have much time to prepare for it," Wander said.

"Also, audibles are built into the offense. You teach a quarterback well and if the backs hit the line hard and the linemen come off the ball, you can have success. The spread is the fad now. But we can always find a couple of running backs at our school who are good dive backs."

Wander, who enjoyed great success with 12-1, 12-2 and 9-2 teams in 2004-06, describes himself as a running coach.

"You need a great tailback in the I formation. But if you have a good quarterback who has a good understanding of reads and our offense, we can play with anybody," he said.

He has that type of quarterback this season. But it took 6-foot-6, 215-pound sophomore David Edwards to grow into the position. The cousin of former Downers Grove North stars Tommy and Garrett Edwards, the 15-year-old is one of the best young prospects that Wander has had.

"His toughness and running ability is off the charts as a sophomore," Wander said.

Edwards operates with junior Kyle Leto and senior Brandon Salter at the two running back positions. Salter, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior who also plays outside linebacker, have given the Trojans a reliable 1-2 punch.

Against Batavia, Salter carried 19 times for a career-high 224 yards and two touchdowns, breakaways of 55 and 84 yards.

"That triple option is kind of hard to defend," said Batavia linebacker Cullin Rokos. "You don't know who has the ball and sometimes you catch someone guessing."

Against Thornton, Salter and Leto combined for 194 yards rushing and each scored a touchdown.

"In the last 10 years, this is our fourth quarterfinal team," Wander said. "We've been down for the last three years. But this year's team has better athleticism and better line play."

It also has Salter, whom Wander describes as "the loose hanger on our team, a great kid, a loosey-goosey kid, a go-with-the-flow type of kid who keeps everybody else loose on the team. He does his thing. He has his role. I love to yell at him but it's just for fun. I love him," the coach said.

Salter admits it is all in fun. After three losing seasons, after losing the last three games of the regular season, football is fun again. It always is when you are winning. Especially when you are carrying the ball a lot and scoring touchdowns.

"I'm the guy who keeps everybody from being uptight. I loosen them up a bit," he said. "I've always been that kind of kid. When it gets down to serious business, I can be serious. But there is a time when you don't have to be serious."

This is a time to be serious, especially in the wake of last year's disappointment. "Last year was aggravating. I felt we were a pretty good team but we couldn't put it together. We should have been better than 2-7. We had the pieces to be decent but we couldn't pull it out," Salter said.

"This team meshes better than last year. I don't know what happened with the last three games of the regular season. Some kids were too loose. But in practice before the playoff, everybody got serious and buckled down."

A year ago, Salter started at linebacker. In the summer, however, Wander came to him and said: "You are our primary running back." What could be better than being a running back in a run-oriented offense?

"I was excited. I kind of thought it was coming. I was the main backup last year and the two starting running backs were seniors. (Wander) had to be looking for somebody," Salter said.

He knew he had to get stronger to absorb all the hits and pounding he anticipated he would take as a primary running back. In the off-season, he concentrated on lifting weights. "I had to be ready to take hits. I don't go down as easy," he said.

Salter admits he doesn't understand why Downers Grove North runs a split-back veer offense instead of the more popular spread. Even his friends often ask him why nearly every other school runs a spread while Downers Grove North prefers to run, run and run some more.

"Why we run it is difficult to understand. Why not a shotgun or spread that everybody else runs? The spread looks like more fun," he said. "We win in a boring way. We pound it four yards a play up the field. Other teams are throwing the ball and it looks like more fun. All the colleges run the spread. It's a big-play offense."

But many spread teams are packing in their equipment and Downers Grove North and its old-fashioned offense is in the quarterfinals. More important, Salter said, he likes to carry the ball. In a spread, he wouldn't see it very often.

"That's what I like about this offense," he said. "I carry the ball 19 to 25 times a game. I've rushed for about 600 yards. Leto has done the same. It's hard for other defenses to understand what is going on. There are so many options. At any time you can get a big breakaway because of a good ball fake by the other back."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Yu Darvish, Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa and more

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Yu Darvish, Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa and more

Tuesday on Sports Talk Live, David Kaplan along with Chris Bleck, Rich Campbell and Jordan Bernfield discuss:

            -the posibility of the Cubs signing Yu Darvish and the need for one more pitcher in the rotation

            -Jim Thome looking like he'll be inducted into Cooperstown tomorrow

            -Sammy Sosa's Hall of Fame chances

            -Corey Crawford back to working out as the Hawks losing continues

            -DeMarcus Cousins with a game for the ages, but is his baggage worth signing him?

            -Do the Eagles have a chance of beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl?

1-on-1 with Antioch quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis

1-on-1 with Antioch quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis

Need proof that the college football recruiting process is evaluating and offering players younger than ever before? All you need to do is ask Antioch quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis (6-foot-3, 185 pounds).

Kaliakmanis, who as a freshman was Carmel's starting quarterback before transferring to his home school district after the fall semester, recently landed his first verbal scholarship from Syracuse. Kaliakmanis, who is also on several college recruiting radar screens this winter, was easily one of the stronger performers in a loaded quarterback field at the recently held EDGYTIM MLK Underclassmen Showcase, powered by EFT Football Academy. 

I caught up with Kaliakmanis and discussed how Syracuse gave him his first scholarship, his recent transfer to Antioch and much more.