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."

High School Lites Preview: Week 9

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NBC Sports Chicago

High School Lites Preview: Week 9

NBC Sports Chicago will have cameras covering the biggest high school football games across Chicagoland on the Week 9 edition of High School Lites, Friday at 11:00 p.m. Can Perspectives beat Solorio and get a shot at the state playoff field? Can Bolingbrook upset the Big Cobalt Blue Machine at Lincoln-Way East? Can Marist post a perfect ESCC season and beat Benet Academy in Lisle? Can Wheaton North upset Batavia and sneak into the state playoffs with a win? And who wins the CCL Blue championship game? Brother Rice? Montini?

Solorio vs. Perspectives, 3:45 p.m. at Stagg Stadium

EDGY's Take: Both Solorio (5-3, 2-2) and Perspectives (4-4, 0-4) are in must-win mode. They are both seeking a Week 9 win. Solorio is in with a win. Should Perspectives win, both teams will then await their state playoff fate on Saturday night when the IHSA pairings are released. Solorio head coach Bill Ziemba has playmakers in NIU commit WR/DB Messian Travis and with QB Tyrell Williams. Will the Sun Warriors be ready for an equally-hungry Perspectives team? The Warriors, with head coach Terry Jones at the helm, also have talent this season. It includes senior OL/DL Dominic Moore (6-foot-7, 290 pounds). He is one of the state's top uncommitted names. Can the Perspectives defense slow down and contain Solorio's skills department and overall big play ability?

EDGY's Pick: Solorio 28 Perspectives 16 

Dundee-Crown at Huntley, 7:00 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Dundee-Crown (4-4, 3-4) is looking for their first playoff berth since 2013. A win by the Chargers would get them, at least, in the postseason conversation. Head coach Michael Steinhaus has a strong passing attack this fall led by under-the-radar QB Joshua Raby. TE/DE Justin Prusko is a name to watch as well. Huntley (5-3, 5-2) head coach Matt Zimolzak has also gotten a big season from his quarterback. Chris Raffin and the Red Raiders have several weapons on offense including WR Connor Fitzgerald. Can the Huntley defense get a consistent pass rush against the Dundee-Crown line? Can Dundee-Crown keep their offense on the field and win in a shootout?

EDGY's Pick: Huntley 34 Dundee-Crown 24

Lisle at Coal City, 7:00 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Lisle (8-0, 4-0) is having a terrific season under Hall of Fame head coach Paul Parpet. They are conference champs for the first time since 1981. Coach Parpet will rely on a very productive offense led by QB Jay McGrath and top receiver Jake Kowal. This is an Interstate Eight crossover against Coal City (7-1, 4-0), who will be going to the postseason for the eighth year in a row. Head coach Dan Hutchings has a balanced offensive attack led by junior QB Payton Hutchings, RB Connor Skubc and RB Dan Jezic. On defense, the Coalers defense have allowed just 42 points on the season. Can the Lisle offense consistently move the chains against the Coal City defense?

EDGY's Pick: Coal City 31 Lisle 27

Payton vs Kenwood, 7:15 p.m. at Gately Stadium

EDGY's Take: Payton (8-0, 4-0) and Kenwood (8-0, 4-0) are playing for the Chicago Public League Illini Prairie State conference title. Head coach George Klupchak has his Grizzles rolling behind QB Sage Shindler and RB Damien Goodman. The Payton defense has also been strong all season. Kenwood and head coach Sinque Turner has also an All-State caliber playmaker in senior WR/DB Mark Aitken (NIU). He is joined by a ton of speed on both sides of the football. Last possession wins?
 
EDGY's Pick: Kenwood 35 Payton 21

(16) Bolingbrook at (1) Lincoln-Way East, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Lincoln-Way East (8-0, 6-0) hasn't lost a regular season game since September 9, 2016. The 2018 Griffins are --once again-- stacked on both sides of the football. Keep an eye on QB Jack Baltz (Illinois State), RB Devon Williams, WR Jackson Ritter and WR Matt Judd. Bolingbrook (7-1, 5-1) have won four straight after a Week 4 loss to H-F. The Raiders, under head coach John Ivlow, have talent in the backfield with senior RB Anthony Williams Jr. (Michigan State) along with senior RB Quentin Pringle (Eastern Kentucky). The Bolingbrook defense has allowed just 80 points in 2018. Can Bolingbrook run the football consistently against the Lincoln-Way East defense?

EDGY's Pick: Lincoln-Way East 28 Bolingbrook 20

(4) Marist at Benet, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Marist (7-1, 6-0) has won the East Suburban Catholic Conference. They are looking to finish with a win and earn a high seed in Class 8A. Marist head coach Ron Dawczak has received a huge season from senior QB Mike Markett. He has several weapons including WR Billy Skalitzky and WR Jadon Thompson. The Redhawks defense has been a strength as well. Keep an eye on senior S Kendric Nowling (Easter Michigan). Benet Academy (6-2, 4-2) and head coach Pat New will look towards QB Collin Gillespie and RB Ben Hickey as the keys on offense. The Redwings defense is also a strength. Watch for DL Jacob Snell and DE Jack Benish to make plays. Can the Benet defense limit the amount of Marist offensive touches? 

EDGY's Pick: Marist 34 Benet Academy 21

(2) Batavia at Wheaton North, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Batavia (8-0, 6-0) has locked up the DuKane Conference title, but they still have plenty to play for here including a high seed in the 7A playoff field. That, and a perfect 9-0 regular season, of course. Batavia last earned such a mark in 2015. The Bulldogs and head coach Dennis Piron will rely on a balanced offense with QB Jack Meyers and RB Art Taylor. The defense is anchored by LB Michael Jansey (Northwestern) and LB Luke Weerts (North Dakota State). Wheaton North (4-4, 3-3) and head coach Joe Wardynski are in must-win mode. The Falcons will look to the offense to be a catalyst. The unit is led by RB Antowon Tolbert and QB Nathan Love. On defense, the Falcons will need to slow down a very balanced Batavia offense. Can Wheaton North's defense force Batavia into turnovers? 

EDGY's Pick: Batavia 41 Wheaton North 20

(3) Brother Rice at (17) Montini, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: The Chicago Catholic Blue conference championship game features Brother Rice (8-0, 3-0) taking on Montini Catholic (8-0, 3-0). Crusaders head coach Brian Badke features an offense led by QB John Bean, RB Jessi Plunkett and WR Dylan Summers. They have big and physical offensive line as well. On the other side of the ball, Rice's defense has allowed just 52 points all season. Montini Catholic and second year head coach Mike Bukovsky feature a two quarterback system. Deontay Brown and Robert Brazziel have shared the position quite well. RB Nick Fedanzo (Illinois) and WR Nate Muersch are names to watch. The Montini defense has also been strong this season, allowing just 46 points in eight games. Can the Montini defense slow down the Crusaders running game? Can the Rice defense limit the Broncos' multiple offensive weapons?

EDGY's Pick: Brother Rice 21 Montini Catholic 14

Viewers' Choice Game 

Schaumburg at Fremd, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Both Schaumburg (4-4, 1-3) and Fremd (4-4, 3-1) are playing for their IHSA playoff lives. Head coach Lou Sponsel and the Vikings got out of the gates slow (0-3 record) but the Vikings found a spark behind RB-converted-to-QB Nick Rattin. That, along with a big and physical offensive and defensive lines could help reverse a 1-8 season quite nicely should Fremd win. Schaumburg, under head coach Mark Stilling, will be trying to get the Saxons on track. They have dropped three of their last four games. The Saxons have lots of speed and big play potential with senior WR/DB Heze Trotter along with sophomore RB Michael DiGioia. Can the Fremd defense limit the big play ability of Schaumburg?

EDGY's Pick: Fremd 24 Schaumburg 17

Beware of the Attack of the Lower Seeds

Beware of the Attack of the Lower Seeds

With the upcoming IHSA football playoff pairings announcement on Saturday night, here are some teams with modest win-loss records who opponents probably wouldn’t want to see in the early rounds of the postseason.

Loyola Academy (5-3): The Ramblers have struggled this season. But head coach John Holocek has, once again, led his team to the state playoff field. So what gives? Loyola has been inconsistent on offense and has turned the football over way too often. The team has also been dealing with various injuries. But the defense (minus a 35-3 loss to Brother Rice) has generally played well this season. If the Ramblers can clean up the turnovers and find a way to get their offense back in a rhythm, this team can undoubtedly surprise some teams along the way in Class 8A. 

Neuqua Valley (5-3): The Wildcats and head coach Bill Ellinghaus have dropped three tight games this season including a last possession, 21-14 decision to DuPage Valley Conference champion Naperville Central two weeks ago. If the Wildcats can continue to get steady production from a balanced offense, led by RB Will Cheviliar and QB John Gronowski, the defense is capable of keeping Neuqua Valley in every game this postseason.

Aurora Christian (5-3): Coach Dave Beebe’s Eagles have lost to three playoff-bound teams this season with a combined 21-3 record (IC Prep, St. Francis and Bishop McNamara). They have a potent spread-passing attack led by sophomore QB Ethan Hampton. Aurora Christian is also slated to wind up in the Class 1A bracket on pairings night. Their dynamic offense and passing game in general could be a tough matchup for opponents in, what usually is, Class 1A North bracket with teams that generally run the ball.

Barrington (5-3): The Broncos, under head coach Joe Sanchez, have also been dealing with a rash of mid-season injuries; that said, it looks like Barrington is getting healthy at the right time. Junior QB Tommy Fitzpatrick is back from injury and is a key catalyst for any Barrington postseason run. Fitzpatrick has weapons in junior WR EJ Darlington and senior RB Michael Curran. 

Lake Zurich (5-3): The Bears made a starting quarterback change last week as Jack Moses took the reins. He promptly led the Bears to a 42-0 win over Mundelein. If the Bears can limit turnovers and continue to get strong production from their offense, the L-Z defense is more than capable of making life very difficult for any higher seeds that they could draw in the 7A state playoff field. 

Edwardsville (5-3): The Tigers hit a rough patch starting the season with a 1-3 record. But they currently boast a four-game winnings streak heading into Friday night’s tilt at Collinsville. Edwardsville is led by senior QB Kendall Abdur Rahman (Notre Dame) and is a gamebreaker every time he touches the football. Sophomore RB Justin Johnson (and the team in general) possesses a ton of speed. There are athletes and playmakers on both sides of the football. 

Here are some more lower seeds who could wreak havoc:

Providence Catholic (5-3): If the Celtics can get their running game going, beware. 

Raby (5-3): The Raiders could be a handful in 4A.

St. Charles East (4-4): The Saints’ power-option game is always tough to defend. 

Joliet Catholic (4-4): IF the Hilltoppers can beat Notre Dame on Friday, they could be a very tough out in 5A.

Crystal Lake South (5-3): A huge offensive line leads the way for the Gators. 

Zion-Benton (4-4): The Zee-Bees can put as much talent on the field than most of their opponents. 

Lemont (4-4): Needs a win Friday over rival Oak Forest. If the offense can keep the chains moving, the Indians’ defense can do the rest. 

Crete-Monee (5-3): They are the Southland conference champs. Their first two losses in 2018? Lincoln-Way East (8-0) and Brother Rice (8-0).

Thornton (4-4): The Wildcats will need to upset Lincoln Way Central Friday. Thornton always has talent.