Preps Talk

Vikings' offensive 'machine' hitting on all cylinders


Vikings' offensive 'machine' hitting on all cylinders

There's offensive efficiency, and then there's what Homewood-Flossmoor did last Friday night at Downers Grove South.

Anxious to get a highly anticipated season underway, the state's top-ranked team left no doubt about their explosive potential in a 56-15 victory over the Mustangs.

In seven scoring drives from the first team offense, the Vikings averaged 2.8 plays; no drive took more than six plays, and four of those possessions needed two plays or fewer. The constant home-run strikes resulted in Homewood-Flossmoor needing just 7:03 to score seven touchdowns, with no drive taking longer than 2:14 to find the end zone. Their first five touchdowns came in the offense's first 11 plays from scrimmage.

"I told Bryce, I told Deante, I told Devonte, ‘Can y'all please slow down so I can get a break?’" joked senior defensive end Tyler Newkirk, who led the defense with 13 tackles. "Because we go on the field, make a stop, they get on the field and then I’m right back on the field for PAT and then I got to get ready to go back on defense. So I’ve told those guys countless times and they’re like, ‘We can’t. We’ve got to keep scoring.’ So it is what it is. I’m glad they’re scoring. It’s a good problem to have."

Quarterback Bryce Gray led the charge with an unimaginable box score: 8-for-9, 348 yards and four touchdown passes in a little more than a half on the field. The Harley-Hampton touchdown competition got off to a rousing start, with Devonte finding the end zone twice on touchdown runs in the first quarter, while brother Deante scored from 31 yards out on the game's opening drive. Deante added a second score early in the second quarter on a 28-yard middle screen pass from Gray. A 66-yard catch-and-run score out of halftime gave Devonte his third score of the night.

[DRIVE: Providence WR Miles Boykin's Journey to Notre Dame]

Wide receiver Kendric Pryor, who committed to Wisconsin late Wednesday night, picked up right where he left off a year ago, too. The senior caught four passes for 152 yards and a pair of scores from Gray. The Vikings' explosive offense was summed up when a holding call and intentional grounding left them with a 2nd-and-33 from the Mustangs' 35-yard line. Gray took the snap, looked right and lofted a perfectly thrown ball to Pryor, four yards in front of his defender, for the score.

"We trust each other. I know where he’s going to be, I know if I throw it up 90 percent of the time he’s going to go get it," Gray said. "If he doesn’t get it nobody’s going to get it, so it’s great."

Statistically it's difficult to envision a high school program improving on a prior season in which they amassed 5,800 yards and nearly 600 points. But the trial run Friday night made it look like a matter of when, not if, they'll do just that.

"We know each other. We trust each other. Not many new pieces, so we’ve been playing with each other in this offense three years with the core guys. So we trust what Coach Buzz calls, trust the play calling, trust the coaches and we do what we do," Gray said. "And if we execute like we did today, it’s going to be hard to beat."

Even the backups, talent good enough to start on most teams in the state, showed promise. Reserve quarterback Trevor Johnson, who was split wide in an athlete role with the first team, led an 11-play drive in the third quarter that resulted in a 20-yard score from running back Tony Bello.

[#DriveVikings: Even with lofty expectations, H-F living in the moment]

A rival head coach described the Vikings' offense to CSN's Edgy Tim as a "machine," and their Week 1 performance certainly backed it up.

Despite the lackluster opponent, Friday was a crisp display of how deadly the Vikings' offense can and should be this season. With eight starters enjoying their second season in the role, head coach Craig Buzea believes the explosive unit is adding cohesiveness in the form of trusting one another on every play call.

"There's a feel amongst each other when things don't go well, there's always someone to bail them out," he said. "I think that just comes with time and chemistry and playing together a long time. I really sense that between them all."

They'll need to continue that camaraderie as they head into a Week 2 showdown against Stevenson, the reigning 8A state champion that stole glory from many of the same seniors who will take the field in Lincolnshire in Week 2. For some, like Deante Harley-Hampton, it's revenge. For others, it's simply the first tough test on the Vikings' schedule toward eminence in the form of a state championship in DeKalb 3 months from now.

"I'm sure our guys will show up and play, I'm sure their guys will. It'll be a great atmosphere, great high school game," Buzea said. "Win or lose, there's going to be seven more games to play. I think it's going to be exciting."

With commitment to Duke, Whitney Young's D.J. Steward becomes Chicago's biggest high school star since Jalen Brunson

NBC Sports Chicago

With commitment to Duke, Whitney Young's D.J. Steward becomes Chicago's biggest high school star since Jalen Brunson

Whitney Young senior guard DJ Steward ended his whirlwind recruitment on Wednesday as he verbally committed to Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski with a video announcement on Twitter.

The 6-foot-3 Steward gives the Blue Devils a major perimeter threat who can score, handle and distribute as he's coming off of a monster summer that saw him push for five-star national status. Steward becomes the second Whitney Young star this decade to commit to the Blue Devils, following in the footsteps of former Dolphins center Jahlil Okafor. While Okafor was a known national prospect as a high school freshman who eventually helped Duke to a national championship in his only season in Durham, Steward had to work hard over the summer before his senior year to earn an offer from the blueblood program.

Duke only showed interest in Steward during his early years but picked things up rapidly after the Nike Peach Jam in early July when they offered Steward a scholarship. Steward's recruitment was effectively sealed last week when Krzyzewski and three Duke assistant coaches -- including lead recruiter and former Glenbrook North star Jon Scheyer -- showed up to Whitney Young's first open gym of the fall. An official visit to Durham last weekend ended Steward's recruitment despite long-standing interest from schools like Illinois, Louisville and Texas -- among many others.

As Duke and Krzyzewski have been engaged in a decade-long battle with Kentucky and head coach John Calipari over five-star prospects and the nation's top college basketball recruiting class, the Chicagoland area hasn't seen much of the nation's top two recruiting programs.

Steward's commitment changes things. His pledge to Duke makes him the Chicagoland area's biggest high school basketball star since Jalen Brunson graduated from Stevenson in 2015. 

Brunson was the state's last McDonald's All-American in 2015 as the state of Illinois has seen an unprecedented drought with top-flight basketball talent the past few years. Other area stars have committed to big programs and been ranked in the national top 100. But the name-brand of Duke Basketball and Coach K resonates with even the most casual of sports fans. 

The commitment to Duke from Steward, along with Whitney Young's status as perhaps the state's best team this season, should lead to a lot of excitement from area basketball fans. The Dolphins will be a hot ticket in their numerous showcase games. It also helps that Steward has been a known varsity performer since his freshman season at Fenwick. In his first season of varsity basketball, Steward became an instant must-see attraction after a perfect 10-for-10 shooting performance in a Class 3A state-title game loss to Morgan Park. Steward is one of the rare players to make a major impact in both the Chicago Catholic League and Chicago Public League during his high school career.

An NBC Sports Chicago All-Area selection during his sophomore season at Fenwick and junior season at Whitney Young (following his transfer), Steward has positioned himself as the favorite to win Mr. Basketball entering his final season. If Steward can complete his high school career with a state title -- which has eluded him to this point -- then he'll have one of the most storied careers in recent IHSA history thanks to his big numbers, winning ways and national reputation.

Coupled with Morgan Park senior guard Adam Miller's monster junior season (and lofty national ranking of his own) and it could be one of the most memorable seasons of basketball in the Chicago Public League in the past decade.

Flying high: Can anyone stop East St. Louis?

NBC Sports Chicago

Flying high: Can anyone stop East St. Louis?

Depending upon who you believe, the 2019 East St. Louis Flyers are --at minimum-- the state's best team regardless of class size. One could say they are a preps version of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and the 1985 Chicago Bears, wrapped up into one Illinois superpower. Even the Chicagoland media, some of the harshest critics to win over, have been all gaga over the Flyers. This is especially true after East St. Louis dispatched a highly acclaimed, highly ranked Batavia team 31-17 in the opening week. And it was honestly not as close as the score would indicate. 

So the question remains: How good are the Flyers this season and can they be beaten? 

I've been able to see East St. Louis play in person every season since the early 2000s. I've seen quite a few standout East teams and a multitude of standout hig- level college talent over those many years. The program has won more games in Illinois than any other in state history. But I believe in many ways that this could be their best team…ever. But they remain a long ways away from that lofty goal. 

The overall talent level for the 2019 Flyers is undeniable. 

Offensively, start with three star-ranked junior QB Tyler Macon. Macon, who is starting his second season under center, is a year older, faster, stronger and better this fall. Macon already had an impressive arm and deep ball. But his overall confidence level in the passing game and his ability to tuck it and run has increased considerably. Mix in a highly-ranked group of offensive skill position players including three star-ranked senior WR Lawaun Powell, four star-ranked (and the state’s top-ranked recruit via senior WR/S Antonio Johnson, three star-ranked junior WR Dominic Lovett, senior three star-ranked junior WR Keontez Lewis and rising senior RB Demonta Witherspoon and you have easily one of the state's best skills group. The East St. Louis offensive line averages nearly 280 pounds. They’re led by three star-ranked Tennessee commit senior OG Javontez Spraggins (6-foot-3, 310 pounds).

On defense, they have a terrific mix of speed, size and athletic tools rarely seen at the prep level. The defensive line is led by senior three star-ranked DE Kevon Billingsley (Missouri) and senior DT Kendrick Scarbrough. The back seven is equally as skilled. Keep an eye on senior LB Darius Walker, senior DB Dylan Appleton along with secondary mates Antonio Johnson and Lawaun Powell.

[MORE: AP Week Three Rankings / East St. Louis #1 in Class 5A]

So what will it take for a team to upset the Flyers? 

Neuqua Valley, under head coach Bill Ellinghaus, was able to trade scores with the Flyers last Friday. They also made some key stops at times, but still couldn’t overcome the Flyers in a 50-48 in overtime loss. The Wildcats offense features a standout senior QB in Mark Gronowski (South Dakota State) along with a strong group of backs and receivers including WR Sean Larkin (SIU), senior Patrick Hoffman and senior WR Garrett Stare. Junior RB Armani Moreno has also given the Wildcats a punishing run threat to its already strong passing attack. But it wasn’t enough.

While Neuqua Valley was able to trade score for score, is there another way of slaying this tremendous 618 monster? 

Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School has been able to eliminate the Flyers over the past two seasons in the 7A playoffs. OK, so we all know last year was last year. And we also know the Flyers are looking at playing in either the 6A or 5A state playoff field this November (East isn't being allowed to volunteer to play "up" in 7A but will play in its actual enrollment classification). Stay with me on this-- Mount Carmel, in both playoff wins, reverted a bit back to its old power running game/ball control attack. They slowed down the pace of the game and kept the Flyers’ speedy playmakers on the sidelines for extended periods of time. The Caravan also took full advantage of various East St. Louis penalties, lack of a strong kicking/punting game and turnovers en route to those wins. The Caravan also have a knack of making team pay for costly turnovers-- something that cost the Flyers at times in both playoff losses. 

Admittedly, the chances of teams pulling off an upset of the Flyers, whether in the regular season or postseason looks more and more remote. Sure, East St. Louis still has its entire Southwestern conference schedule ahead of them. The annual showdown with rival Edwardsville (2-1) is always a big game in the Metro area. That comes on Oct. 4. The Week 9 nonconference showdown at Naperville Central sure looked a lot more promising a few weeks ago before the Redhawks got off to an 0-3 start. But Naperville Central still have a shot at making that Week 9 game mean something. 
How about the postseason? Again, never say never, but the overall level of competition between playing in Class 7A versus playing in Class 6A or Class 5A can be considerable. Playing in Class 6A or 5A also means the Flyers will be in a more geographically friendly bracket and won't –potentially-- see very many Chicagoland area powers in those classes until very late in the state playoff or even at the state title game. 

Also: let's not forget that this is still high school football. Kids could get hurt and/or suspended. And the only thing certain in high school football is nothing is certain. So can the East St. Louis Flyers be stopped? Of course. Will they be stopped? It's still too early to tell. But what I can tell you is this remains the best team I've seen so far this season in the Land of Lincoln. That I'm pretty certain least for now.