A.J. Henning

Edgy Tim: Illinois Player of the Year candidates (so far)

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NBC Sports Chicago

Edgy Tim: Illinois Player of the Year candidates (so far)

We have played six weeks on the high school football schedule. It's still a bit early, but who are the early candidates for IHSA Football Player of the Year? With a month-plus of football under our belts, it's time to start identifying which names are deserving of a mention heading into Week 7 games. 

(I also discussed this on camera at NBC Sports Chicago's studios Wednesday afternoon)

So where to begin? Let's start outside of Chicagoland. 

East St Louis (6-0) and head coach Darren Sunkett has a roster loaded with talent. It includes over a dozen names drawing serious recruiting attention and scholarship offers this fall. But in my mind, junior QB Tyler Macon (1,856 yards passing) is the leading candidate for the Flyers so far in 2019. Macon, who a season ago was more of a game manager with potential and physical tools, has transformed into a more of a mature, patient quarterback with a tremendous arm and touch. 

The Springfield area always has talent. Start with Class 6A's top-ranked Glenwood Titans (6-0) and its multi-sport, multi-year starting QB Luke Lehnen. This senior has led the Titans to a perfect record so far this season; he has the Chatham community feeling like it's 1998 all over again (Glenwood won its only IHSA state football title that season). Not to be outdone, nearby Rochester (6-0) knows all about winning. Senior QB Clay Bruno (1,688 yards passing 21 TDs) has been on fire so far in 2019. Glenwood hosts Rochester on Oct. 25. Springfield sophomore QB Rashad Rochelle has been a huge presence in big games. This includes last week's 54-42 win over Sacred Heart-Griffin. 

Also don't overlook a handful of other standout performers in Central Illinois including Peoria (5-1) senior QB Gabe Hernandez and Normal West (5-1) senior QB Carson Camp, who is commited to South Dakota.

Getting closer to the Windy City, the Chicagoland area has several worthy names to watch. 

Lincoln-Way East (6-0) is the state's top ranked 8A team. The Griffins have received a huge season from senior A.J. Henning (Michigan). Henning has played wide receiver, running back and also has played at quarterback. He has been an big impact, big play performer for coach Rob Zvonar and company. 

Several quarterbacks are also in the discussion. Nazareth Academy (6-0) junior QB JJ McCarthy (Michigan) is the state's top quarterback prospect and one of a handful of Roadrunners worthy of consideration. Neuqua Valley (5-1) has also relied on senior QB Mark Gronowski (South Dakota State). His overall game has reached new heights; his overall recruiting profile continues to grow as well. Hersey's (6-0) offense is averaging almost 50 points per game. Senior QB Jordan Hansen will remind you a bit of another Jordan --as in former Mount Carmel/NIU star and current Mount Carmel head coach QB Jordan Lynch-- with Hansen's identical ability to be a punishing runner and very impressive passer, much like Lynch in his playing days. 

Has anyone meant as much to his team and his school community as Willowbrook (5-1) senior QB/S Sam Tumilty? Tumilty continues to post big numbers week in and week out. He never leaves the field and keeps leading the Warriors football program to a new level of respect. 

How about some smaller enrollment names to consider? Take Coal City senior RB Dan Jezik. He's been a huge factor in getting the Coalers to new heights in Class 4A. How about IC Catholic Prep's senior QB/S Danny Cronin? St. Francis (5-1) and head coach Bob McMillen has the Spartans on a roll. No one has been as valuable as junior QB Tommy Rittenhouse. He's paid dividends --with his arms and feet-- for the Spartans so far this fall. 

However, the Player of the Year honor is always much more than just a quarterback-only award. 

Mount Carmel junior RB/LB Kenenna Odeluga is a quiet, low-key type of kid off the field. He is the Caravan's main threat in the run game on offense while also being an impact player on defense-- a unit that's allowed just 55 points in 2019. Chicago's southern suburbs has one of the Midwest's most sought-after running backs in Hillcrest (6-0) junior Mar'Kiese Irving. Irving keeps impressing everyone who has seen him in person this season. He already has several Power Five scholarship offers under his belt. In the western suburbs, Glenbard West (6-0) is always about the defense. Senior LB Greyson Metz has played as well as any non-offensive players in Chicagoland so far this season. 

Yet what separates some names over others? 

One of my favorite memories so far from this season features Batavia senior RB/LB Quinn Urwiler. After the Bulldogs' opening week loss to East St. Louis, I noticed several Flyer coaches and players seeking out Urwiler after the handshake line. So I asked Flyers' four star-ranked senior S Antonio Johnson why he walked over out of his way to talk to Urwiler. 

"That kid can ball," Johnson said. "We went at him hard and he never backed down. He gave us everything he had and I respect his game for sure."

3 Days to Kickoff: Lincoln-Way East

3 Days to Kickoff: Lincoln-Way East

NBCSportsChicago.com 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 Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Lincoln-Way East

Head coach: Rob Zvonar

How they fared in 2018: 12-1 (7-0 Southwest Suburban Conference). LWE made the Class 8A state playoff field and defeated St. Charles East, Glenbard West and Edwardsville. They advanced to the semifinal round where they lost to Loyola Academy.
 
2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 30 vs Stevenson
Sept. 6 @ Naperville Central
Sept. 13 vs Bradley
Sept. 20 @ Bolingbrook
Sept. 27 vs Homewood-Flossmoor
Oct. 5 @ Lincoln-Way Central
Oct. 11 vs Lockport
Oct. 18 @ Sandburg
Oct. 25 vs Lincoln-Way West

[MORE: 27 Days to Kickoff - Stevenson] 

Biggest storyline: Lincoln-Way East has made the playoffs every year of the program's existence-- 18 years and counting. Can the Griffins, once again, reload and make a deep run toward a state title game this November?

Names to watch this season: ATH A.J. Henning (Sr., Michigan) and DE Sean McLaughlin (Sr., Northwestern) 

Biggest holes to fill: The Griffins will need to replace 18 graduated starters from a season ago. 

EDGY's Early Take: Lincoln-Way East and head coach Rob Zvonar looked unstoppable for almost all of the 2018 season. But in the semifinal round, Loyola Academy stunned the Griffins in a 24-16 loss in Wilmette to end the season. East will feature a senior group long on talent including four star-ranked senior WR A.J. Henning (Michigan). They also bring back senior DE Adrian Wilson (Bowling Green) and senior DE Sean McLaughlin (Northwestern). The new faces are talented as well. Keep an eye on senior QB Kyle Quinn, junior RB Jamal Johnson and junior WR Mason Pierre Antoine. The schedule will test the Griffins right away as they host Stevenson and then travel to Naperville Central in Week 2. If the new faces can settle in quickly, look for the Griffins to challenge for a state title. Lincoln-Way East still possesses one of the biggest and deepest rosters in Illinois-- a huge advantage in this era of lower overall participation numbers in high school football.