Preps Talk

HF offensive line putting the 'hit' in Hit Squad


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."

89 Days to Kickoff: St. Charles East

89 Days to Kickoff: St. Charles East preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: St. Charles East

Head coach: Bryce Farquhar

How they fared in 2017: 8-3 (4-2 Upstate 8 River Conference), St. Charles East made the 2017 IHSA state Class 8A playoff field. The Saints defeated Oswego East then lost to eventual 8A state champion Lincoln-Way East in second round action.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Rock Island

Aug. 31 @ Carmel

Sept. 7 vs Glenbard North

Sept. 14 @ Wheaton South

Sept. 21 vs Geneva

Sept. 28 @ St. Charles North

Oct. 5 vs Batavia

Oct. 12 @ Wheaton North

Oct. 19 vs Lake Park

[MORE: 90 Days to Kickoff - Warren]

Biggest storyline: The Saints have had impressive campaigns the last two seasons. Can they continue to prosper in the newly-formed DuKane Conference?

Names to watch this season: RB/LB Justin Jett and OL Dylan Barrett

Biggest holes to fill: The Saints will look to reload at a few key spots including at quarterback, as Clayton Isbell has moved on to Illinois State. Replacing RB/LB Nick Garlisch (South Dakota St.) will be key as well.

EDGY's Early Take: Coach Bryce Farquhar's Saints have produced playoff seasons in back-to-back years. Now, their regular season ramps up a bit with the newly-formed DuKane Conference. The new league features some former Upstate Eight conference foes in St. Charles North, Batavia and Geneva, plus former DuPage Valley members Wheaton Warrenville South, Wheaton North, Glenbard North and Lake Park. Look for the Saints to rely on some experience up front. Three starters are back on the offensive line, including junior OG Dylan Barrett. He has already added several FBS level scholarship offers. 

90 Days to Kickoff: Warren

90 Days to Kickoff: Warren preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Warren Township

Head coach: Bryan McNulty

Assistant coaches: Jim Voutiritsas, Brandon Schild, Justin Van Schaik, Tayler Erbach and Mark Mika

How they fared in 2017: 7-4 (5-2 North Suburban Conference). Warren Township made the IHSA 8A playoff field. The Blue Devils defeated Bolingbrook then lost to Maine South in second round action.

2018 Regular Season Schedule

Aug. 24 vs Barrington

Aug. 31 @ Glenbard North

Sept. 7 vs Waukegan

Sept. 14 vs Libertyville

Sept. 21 @ Lake Forest

Sept. 28 @ Zion-Benton

Oct. 5 vs Lake Zurich

Oct. 12 vs Stevenson

Oct. 19 @ Mundelein

Biggest storyline: Can The Blue Devils make it back-to-back postseason appearances and challenge for the North Suburban Conference title?

Names to watch this season: DL Zack Pelland, DT Willis Singleton and RB Martin Walker

Biggest holes to fill: The Blue Devils will need to find a new pass/catch tandem to replace graduated QB Ian Schilling and a strong group in the skills department, led by WR Micah Jones (Notre Dame).  

EDGY's Early Take: The Blue Devils had a nice 2017 season. After starting seven sophomores on the varsity level a year ago, head coach Bryan McNulty has the rare combination of youth and experience this fall. The defense will be a definite strength going into the season. The offense will rely on the running game, which features four starting offensive linemen back in the fold along with senior RB Martin Walker. If the passing game can come along, this team can once again challenge in the North Suburban Conference race and also in the overall 8A picture.