Downers Grove North wins with split-back veer

935627.png

Downers Grove North wins with split-back veer

Mount Carmel isn't the only football team that specializes in the split-back veer offense. Downers Grove North has been running the Houston version since 1986 and coach John Wander thinks he has what it takes to punch a ticket to state finals in Champaign this season.

After a 5-1 start, the Trojans lost their last three regular-season games to finish sixth in the seven-member West Suburban Silver Conference. But they bounced back to eliminate previously unbeaten Batavia 38-26 and favored Thornton 29-13 in the first two rounds of the Class 7A playoff.

Downers Grove North (7-4), coming off 1-8, 2-7 and 2-7 seasons, will be an underdog again Saturday when it meets Benet Academy (10-1) in a quarterfinal test in Lisle. So what's new?

"We limped in but that's the way it happened," coach John Wander said. "We played two good games (against Proviso West and Hinsdale Central) but Glenbard West dominated us.

"I credit our conference. We never had an easy game. Six of the seven teams made the playoff. In our conference, you see every offense and defense there is. Our kids were road tested. We run the option. Not a lot of teams run it outside our conference. That's an advantage."

Wander, who became head coach in 2002, picked up the split-back veer from his predecessor, Pete Ventrelli, who introduced it in 1986 after succeeding 31-year veteran Dick Carstens. Ventrelli's 1990 team finished second in the state. Wander, who was Ventrelli's offensive coordinator, used it to win the state title in 2004.

Why the split-back veer? Outside of Mount Carmel, few schools, high school or college, employ the offense. "That's one reason. Other schools don't see the offense very often and they don't have much time to prepare for it," Wander said.

"Also, audibles are built into the offense. You teach a quarterback well and if the backs hit the line hard and the linemen come off the ball, you can have success. The spread is the fad now. But we can always find a couple of running backs at our school who are good dive backs."

Wander, who enjoyed great success with 12-1, 12-2 and 9-2 teams in 2004-06, describes himself as a running coach.

"You need a great tailback in the I formation. But if you have a good quarterback who has a good understanding of reads and our offense, we can play with anybody," he said.

He has that type of quarterback this season. But it took 6-foot-6, 215-pound sophomore David Edwards to grow into the position. The cousin of former Downers Grove North stars Tommy and Garrett Edwards, the 15-year-old is one of the best young prospects that Wander has had.

"His toughness and running ability is off the charts as a sophomore," Wander said.

Edwards operates with junior Kyle Leto and senior Brandon Salter at the two running back positions. Salter, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior who also plays outside linebacker, have given the Trojans a reliable 1-2 punch.

Against Batavia, Salter carried 19 times for a career-high 224 yards and two touchdowns, breakaways of 55 and 84 yards.

"That triple option is kind of hard to defend," said Batavia linebacker Cullin Rokos. "You don't know who has the ball and sometimes you catch someone guessing."

Against Thornton, Salter and Leto combined for 194 yards rushing and each scored a touchdown.

"In the last 10 years, this is our fourth quarterfinal team," Wander said. "We've been down for the last three years. But this year's team has better athleticism and better line play."

It also has Salter, whom Wander describes as "the loose hanger on our team, a great kid, a loosey-goosey kid, a go-with-the-flow type of kid who keeps everybody else loose on the team. He does his thing. He has his role. I love to yell at him but it's just for fun. I love him," the coach said.

Salter admits it is all in fun. After three losing seasons, after losing the last three games of the regular season, football is fun again. It always is when you are winning. Especially when you are carrying the ball a lot and scoring touchdowns.

"I'm the guy who keeps everybody from being uptight. I loosen them up a bit," he said. "I've always been that kind of kid. When it gets down to serious business, I can be serious. But there is a time when you don't have to be serious."

This is a time to be serious, especially in the wake of last year's disappointment. "Last year was aggravating. I felt we were a pretty good team but we couldn't put it together. We should have been better than 2-7. We had the pieces to be decent but we couldn't pull it out," Salter said.

"This team meshes better than last year. I don't know what happened with the last three games of the regular season. Some kids were too loose. But in practice before the playoff, everybody got serious and buckled down."

A year ago, Salter started at linebacker. In the summer, however, Wander came to him and said: "You are our primary running back." What could be better than being a running back in a run-oriented offense?

"I was excited. I kind of thought it was coming. I was the main backup last year and the two starting running backs were seniors. (Wander) had to be looking for somebody," Salter said.

He knew he had to get stronger to absorb all the hits and pounding he anticipated he would take as a primary running back. In the off-season, he concentrated on lifting weights. "I had to be ready to take hits. I don't go down as easy," he said.

Salter admits he doesn't understand why Downers Grove North runs a split-back veer offense instead of the more popular spread. Even his friends often ask him why nearly every other school runs a spread while Downers Grove North prefers to run, run and run some more.

"Why we run it is difficult to understand. Why not a shotgun or spread that everybody else runs? The spread looks like more fun," he said. "We win in a boring way. We pound it four yards a play up the field. Other teams are throwing the ball and it looks like more fun. All the colleges run the spread. It's a big-play offense."

But many spread teams are packing in their equipment and Downers Grove North and its old-fashioned offense is in the quarterfinals. More important, Salter said, he likes to carry the ball. In a spread, he wouldn't see it very often.

"That's what I like about this offense," he said. "I carry the ball 19 to 25 times a game. I've rushed for about 600 yards. Leto has done the same. It's hard for other defenses to understand what is going on. There are so many options. At any time you can get a big breakaway because of a good ball fake by the other back."

Wake-up Call: White Sox top Cubs; D-Rose has a new home; Jerrell Freeman a life-saver

Wake-up Call: White Sox top Cubs; D-Rose has a new home; Jerrell Freeman a life-saver

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports after the first Crosstown Cup game was played:

Slumping White Sox get huge boost after Miguel Gonzalez 'defended his ground'

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

Derrick Rose to sign with Cavaliers

Such a mighty wallop: How does Matt Davidson's mammoth home run stack up?

Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline

'I'm a patient man': Lovie Smith takes the long view entering second season of Illini rebuilding effort

Fired-up Anthony Swarzak relishes pressure of first career save

Was Hector Rondon tipping pitches during late-game meltdowns with Cubs?

Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman saved a man's life at an airport

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

Bullard a prime example of how, why and where Bears can improve

This Bears rebuild has taken longer than expected. Ideally, in year three of a GM/head coach tandem, they should be contending for the playoffs. 

That’s not to say the 2017 Bears can’t. It’s just unlikely. They don’t have enough players opponents have to gameplan for. They don’t have the depth to overcome key injuries. When franchises get on a winning roll, it’s when they have enough of those studs on both sides of the ball, and have the depth to avoid as many emergencies as possible. And that happens when second- and third-year players make a jump in their play.

Offensively, we saw an impressive jump by Cam Meredith, but another left leg injury still have us wondering exactly what Kevin White is, and how good he can be. Jeremy Langford’s growth was stunted by his ankle injury. Second-year center Hroniss Grasu missed the entire year. On the defensive side, we never got to see if Kyle Fuller could’ve proven his first-round status in his third year. Safety Adrian Amos started another full season, but is now in a battle to do the same a third straight year. We can see star qualities in Eddie Goldman, but how much of a difference-maker can he be by remaining on the field? We’ll learn the same about Leonard Floyd if he can do that this fall. And there are a handful of other second-year players we’ll be watching, from Deon Bush to Deiondre Hall to Cre’Von LeBlanc. There’s also 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard, who learned what it took to become a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.

“It was okay. I got about 17 snaps a game,” Bullard said of his rookie season during last month’s minicamp. “That’s not what I wanted coming in. But it is what is. I want to move on to the next year and hopefully be able to help this team in a big way.”

Rookie seasons for every player lay the groundwork. How high their ceiling goes starts to get established in year two, between the player’s effort, and getting coached-up correctly.

“They asked me to gain a few pounds. I was like 282 last year, and right now I’m at 296, so hopefully that helps me, said Bullard. “I’m just trying to make all this solid and not lose my burst that got me here. So I’m looking forward to it. I got a year under my belt now, I know what they expect. I’m gonna be ready.”

Part of Bullard taking things upon himself was hooking up with a former defensive end, from the same alma mater, who happens to be fourth in franchise history in sacks (albeit in a 4-3 scheme): CSN’s very own Bears analyst, Alex Brown.

“We saw each other at the Florida spring game and we kind of linked up and put in some work at his facility down the road,” Bullard explained. “We’ve met up quite a few times, just working on little things. He’s just trying to give me a better understanding of the game, and some of the veteran things he knows that I want to incorporate into my game.”

So what kind of a teacher is Alex?

“He’s alright. I make him him jump in there. I tell him he’s not that old.”

And while Pace didn’t make the big splash in free agency as he tries to match up salary with his grades for players, Bullard has to prove he’s now better than last year’s starter, Mitch Unrein, as well as a hungry fellow former Gator, Jaye Howard, who was brought in on a “prove it” one-year deal after being cut just before the draft by Kansas City.

“As far as him being a Gator, it’s exciting. But it’s a competition. He’s gonna come in and try to win the starting job, and I’m gonna do the same. It’s just gonna have to be a friendly competition when training camp comes, and may the best man win.”

Let this, and many other Bourbonnais battles, begin.