Preps Talk

HF offensive line putting the 'hit' in Hit Squad

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HF offensive line putting the 'hit' in Hit Squad

Pick a stat, any stat. You're bound to get a good idea as to why the Homewood-Flossmoor offense is one of the most lethal in the country.

In four games the Vikings have tallied 226 points and totaled 2,204 yards. Senior quarterback Bryce Gray has two more incompletions (14) than touchdown passes (12). Deante Harley-Hampton has touched the ball 44 times and scored on 11 of them. They've faced 16 third downs, converting eleven. They've punted once. Devonte Harley-Hampton is averaging 16.7 yards on 41 touches, nine of which have found the end zone. Wisconsin commit Kendric Pryor is averaging 33.1 yards per catch and has five touchdowns.

They have had 33 drives result in touchdowns. The average time of possession? 1 minute, 43 seconds. The average number of plays? 3.9. Thirteen scoring drives have taken less than a minute, and only six have taken more than 3 minutes. Twenty-one of the scoring drives have used three plays or fewer.

The embarrassment of riches head coach and offensive coordinator Craig Buzea has at his disposal in terms of playmakers is unparalleled in the state. And yet, like every football team in the country, the dirty work done behind the scenes, the engine that really makes the Vikings Lamborghini of an offense go, starts up front.

Meet the Hit Squad.

A pair of potential future Division-I athletes on the right side, a pair of athletic transfers on the left side and a senior leader in the middle, the Vikings offensive line has been every bit as good as advertised, and every bit as good as the "skill position" players lighting up the scoreboard and earning headlines in newspapers across Illinois each week.

Leading the way is right guard Desmond Bland, a three-year starter who holds multiple Division I offers including North Carolina State and Indiana. Listed at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, "The Freak" as offensive line coach Tom Cicero calls him, has anchored the offensive line and transformed into a dominating presence in the locker room.

To his right is junior Jamezz Kimbrough. The athletic junior added 50 pounds in the offseason after starting as a sophomore and has seen the game slow down for him in Year 2. Cicero admits he's been the most improved player on the line, and the game tape suggests the same.

Senior D'Angelo Wofford is the leader of the offensive line, repeating directions from Cicero on the sideline and initiating all pre-snap assignments to the rest of the line that makes him, as Cicero admits, "the coach on the field."

[RELATED: HF football shows what 'Viking Tough' is all about]

There's even continuity on the left side of the line, where junior transfers Jack Doyle (LG) and John-Michael Schmitz have assimilated to the Vikings' winning ways in their first season with the program. After starting together as freshmen and sophomores at Marian Catholic, they've helped fill the voids left behind by graduated seniors Rayshaun Hawkins and Eric Freeman.

"Play disciplined, know your roles, finish your blocks and play tough," Cicero says of the line's weekly goals. "Play strong. Play together, play as one, Bryce doesn’t get touched, the backs get 100 yards each. That’s what we want each game."

So far, so good. The Vikings are averaging 9.9 yards per rush and Gray has been sacked just once on a Week 1 all-out blitz from Downers Grove South. More importantly, in a Week 2 win over No. 5 Stevenson and its talented defense, Gray wasn't sacked in 29 dropbacks, which resulted in the signal caller inviting the offensive line to his house for a cookout the following Sunday. It's a tradition he picked up watching College Gameday two years ago, when then-Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron did the same following sack-free games.

"Without them there is no me, there’s no (Harley-Hampton twins), there’s no Kendric," he said. "We go as far as they go. They start us off. They open the holes, they protect me. Without them none of us, no matter how good we are, could do anything."

The stout pass pro and gaping holes they provide didn't happen overnight. There's talent on the line to be sure, but just as Gray has a sixth sense to find Pryor when he needs to, or the Harley-Hampton twins know where the other will be on any given play, the hogs upfront have formed a bond transforming them from five linemen to one Hit Squad.

Bland, Wofford and Kimbrough are starting their second years on the varsity team together, while Doyle and Schmitz have worked past summer-camp hiccups to find their place. Cicero, who coached with Buzea for three seasons in Michigan City (Ind.) led 6 a.m. Breakfast Club in the offseason that allowed a seamless transition once the season began, and the results have been evident.

"For us on the offensive line, it’s about being nasty. We want to run right at people and hit them as hard as possible in between the whistles," Kimbrough said. "We want to run the ball right at you and get hard yards. And when our legs are tired and we feel like we’re about to collapse, we just keep going because we’re prepared."

Cicero, also the associate head coach, has gained the respect of his offensive line. But it didn't come right away. Kimbrough admits Buzea "yelled at me 10 times the first day" he was called up to varsity. Wofford, who began his career at guard, admitted being lazy before Cicero "instilled hard work in me." The detail-oriented coach has "everyday drills" he runs with the linemen, sometimes to their dismay, knowing what it will take for the 8A favorites to reach their ultimate goal in DeKalb in two months.

"I’m going to be the first one to pat them on the back, but I’m going to be the first one to give them a swift kick in the butt and say, 'Let’s go,'" he said. "It’s a great group to be around on an everyday basis and seeing them grow, it’s awesome."'

[RELATED: Vikings' offensive 'machine' hitting on all cylinders]

The defense calls itself Money Team. The wide receivers are the Ninjas. The running backs are simply Playmakers. All flashy names that embody their styles of play. Flashiness shows up on highlight reels and newspaper clippings. For the offensive line, Hit Squad gets right to the point.

"If we have a bad day," Bland told the offensive line in practice over the summer, "the offense has a bad day."

Before Gray can fire a strike down the seam to Sam Cutrara, it's Wofford barking out pass protection calls. Before Deante Harley-Hampton finds daylight and open space in front of him, it's Bland and Doyle getting to the second level to attack the unfortunate linebacker waiting for them. Before Pryor sprints past the opposing secondary it's Schmitz protecting Gray's blind side. Before Devonte Harley-Hampton takes a jet sweep right and turns the corner, it's Kimbrough sealing that edge.

"After the game (the opponent is) going to have to get in the ice bath. They’re going to be hurting. Because it’s going to be a long day dealing with us all game," Wofford said. "We’re just one tight-knit squad. We call ourselves Hit Squad (because) we come hard, we come fast at people.

"When it’s time to go, we’re ready to ball. Always."

Public League champion Simeon remains clear No. 1 in latest Preps Power Rankings

Public League champion Simeon remains clear No. 1 in latest Preps Power Rankings

The Class 1A and 2A regionals begin this week and the regular season is finishing up for every other team in the state. We're getting that much closer to state titles being decided in Peoria. Simeon remains the clear No. 1 in the latest Power Rankings after beating No. 4 Whitney Young and No. 2 Orr by double digits on the way to earning a third straight Public League Playoff title, while a couple of familiar faces are back in the tail end of the rankings.

1. Simeon (25-3, 9-0) (1) -- Simeon stays at No. 1 after winning the Public League Playoffs for the third consecutive year. The Wolverines have now defeated teams No. 2 through No. 6 in the Preps Power Rankings for a 6-0 record on the season in which the average margin of victory has been 14.5 points per game. The clear No. 1 in the state of Illinois, Simeon has the week off before the Class 4A playoffs.

2. Orr (22-4, 9-0) (2) -- Orr put up a good fight but they ultimately fell short to No. 1 Simeon in the Public League Playoff title game. The Spartans did gain revenge on No. 3 Curie, however, with a big semifinal win on Friday. Orr has to forget the title loss ahead of the Class 2A Playoffs that begin this week as the Spartans try to repeat as champions.

3. Curie (23-4, 8-1) (3) -- The Condors have only lost to No. 1 and No. 2 when it comes to in-state losses as they remain one of the most complete and balanced teams in the state. Curie has the week off before the IHSA Playoffs.

4. Whitney Young (22-7, 7-2) (4) -- Whitney Young earned a huge quarterfinal win over Morgan Park before falling to Simeon in the Public League Playoff semifinals. The Dolphins also have the week off before they attempt to repeat as Class 4A champions. 

5. Morgan Park (18-9, 7-2) (5) Disappointing result for the Mustangs as they lost on a buzzer-beater in the Public League Playoffs to Whitney Young. Defending champions in Class 3A, the Mustangs will rest this week before the playoffs begin.

6. Fenwick (18-7, 8-0) (8) -- The Friars earned two wins during the week as they beat Marmion while also getting a huge conference road win at Loyola. Fenwick will battle Taft during the week.

7. New Trier (22-3, 8-1) (9) -- New Trier had one of the best weeks of any team in the area as they picked up wins over Maine South and Evanston. Now the leaders in the rugged CSL South, the Trevians have some more tough games against Niles North and Glenbrook North this week. 

8. Evanston (20-5, 8-2) (6) -- Evanston's red-hot recent play was finally slowed down as they fell to rival New Trier. The Wildkits will try to bounce back when they play Vernon Hills in a Central Suburban crossover this week.

9. Oak Park-River Forest (21-5, 12-0) (11) -- The Huskies finished the West Suburban Silver season unbeaten following wins over York and Proviso West. OPRF gets a great test right before the playoffs when they face Hinsdale South in the West Suburban championship game.

10. Benet (21-4) (6-1) (12) -- Two wins for the Redwings this week when they beat Joliet Catholic and Stevenson. Things aren't easy for Benet this week as they head to Marian Catholic before hosting Carmel in two tough ESCC games. 

11. West Aurora (19-4, 8-0) (13) -- The winning streak is now 11 for the Blackhawks after beating South Elgin. West Aurora will play Bartlett and crosstown rival East Aurora this week as they try to keep the momentum going into the playoffs. 

12. Marist (23-4, 6-2) (15) -- Marist picked up a double-digit win over St. Patrick during the week as they prepare for the Class 4A draw. The RedHawks will have an ESCC game against Marian Central this week. 

13. Niles North (22-4, 5-4) (8) -- The Vikings fell to CSL South rival Maine South and followed that up with an overtime win over a tough Wisconsin team in St. Catherine's. The Vikings get a crack at conference leader New Trier this week before playing Maine West in a tough Central Suburban crossover. 

14. Marian Catholic (20-4, 5-3) (16) -- Three wins for the Spartans during the week as they knocked off Nazareth, Rich Central and Marian Central. Marian Catholic gets a tough test this week when they host Benet in its final ESCC game.

15. Naperville North (23-2, 14-1) (17) -- The Huskies have won eight straight games as they clinched at least a share of the DuPage Valley Conference with a win over Waubonsie Valley this week. Naperville North hosts Wheaton-Warrenville South this week to decide the DVC title.

16. DePaul Prep (20-6, 5-3) (19) -- Picking up a convincing double-digit win over Mount Carmel, the Rams got back on track after the loss to Brother Rice. DePaul Prep will host Montini during the week as they prepare for Class 3A. 

17. Loyola (21-6, 5-3) (10) -- Tough recent stretch for the Ramblers as they fell to St. Joseph and Fenwick to fall out of the Catholic League Blue race. Loyola hosts Steinmetz for a tune-up this week. 

18. Hillcrest (21-5, 13-0) (21) -- Hillcrest survived a tight win over T.F. North before winning convincingly against Oak Forest. The Hawks have the week off as they prep for Class 3A. 

19. Leo (19-5, 8-0) (22) -- Finishing the regular season with a big win over Marmion, the Lions will be one of the area teams to watch in the Class 2A playoffs as they are in the Marshall Regional. 

20. Homewood-Flossmoor (16-6, 7-1) (23) -- Another huge win for Homewood-Flossmoor as the Vikings took down Bolingbrook to keep a lead in the SouthWest Suburban Blue. Homewood-Flossmoor goes on the road this week to battle Sandburg and Lockport. 

21. Hinsdale South (20-5, 10-2) (24) -- The Hornets stayed hot with wins over Addison Trail and Proviso East as they clinched the West Suburban Gold. Hinsdale South has a tough battle against Oak Park-River Forest in the West Suburban championship game this week. 

22. St. Viator (22-5, 8-0) (25) -- The Lions picked up some wins against Carmel and Bartlett. St. Viator will try to close out the ESCC with an undefeated record when they play Nazareth this week. 

23. Bolingbrook (17-6, 5-3) (18) -- Bolingbrook fell out of the SouthWest Suburban Blue conference race when they lost to Homewood-Flossmoor. The Raiders still have some tough games to close out the regular season when they play Lincoln-Way East and Stagg.

24. Maine South (20-7, 6-4) (NR) -- Huge win for Maine South as they knocked off Niles North after losing to New Trier in overtime earlier in the week. The Hawks close out the regular season with a Central Suburban Crossover against Highland Park.

25. Willowbrook (22-5, 9-3) (NR) -- Willowbrook is back in the rankings by earning three double-digit wins over Morton, Leyden and Downers South. The Warriors have only lost to ranked teams like West Aurora and Hinsdale South lately as they've been playing well. 

Five top-25 matchups highlight loaded episode of High School Lites

Five top-25 matchups highlight loaded episode of High School Lites

High School Lites had five matchups between top-25 teams on Friday night as the Public League Playoff semifinals and big matchups in the CSL South, Catholic League Blue and SouthWest Suburban Blue took shape.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NBCSPreps for the latest news and scores for IHSA basketball.

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Palatine's Eduardo Orozco

Saint Xavier Team of the Week: Maine West girls basketball

Highlights

No. 1 Simeon holds off No. 4 Whitney Young

No. 2 Orr gets revenge on No. 3 Curie

No. 9 New Trier takes down No. 6 Evanston

No. 8 Fenwick handles No. 10 Loyola Academy

No. 23 Homewood-Flossmoor rallies past No. 18 Bolingbrook

Oswego East upsets No. 20 Joliet Central

Andrew shuts down Thornridge

Sandburg tops Lockport in OT

Richards runs by Shepard

Maine West captures second straight girls basketball regional title