Downers Grove North wins with split-back veer

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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."

Will Cubs add another ace? Report says North Siders interested in Yu Darvish

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USA TODAY

Will Cubs add another ace? Report says North Siders interested in Yu Darvish

It's been a little more than a week since the Cubs altered the state of their pitching staff for years to come with that blockbuster crosstown swap that brought Jose Quintana to the North Side.

But are the Cubs looking to make another massive upgrade to their starting rotation before the trade deadline?

According to MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi, the Cubs are interested in Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish.

Now it might not make too much sense at first blush for the Cubs, who dealt away their top two minor leaguers in the trade for Quintana, to acquire another frontline starting pitcher, especially one who unlike Quintana will become a free agent at the end of the season. After all, if the Cubs do want Darvish in the long term, they can wait a few months and go after him in free agency, losing no assets but money in the process.

The Cubs' rotation, once Kyle Hendricks returns from the disabled list, also looks pretty set with Jon Lester, Quintana, Jake Arrieta, Hendricks and John Lackey the presumed quintet for the remainder of the regular season, barring any other injuries of course.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

But Morosi makes some points, even if they might be speculative ones, that make a trade for Darvish seem not so ridiculous. After all, the Cubs did so much for their future in acquiring Quintana that a rental like Darvish to power a second straight run to the World Series might not seem so risky.

And while the Cubs' rotation is looking good right now with the team winners of six straight since the All-Star break, it was perhaps the team's biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half. Arrieta and Hendricks both failed to replicate the consistency that made them two of baseball's best last season. And Lackey has struggled mightily, still the owner of 5.04 ERA and a guy who's given up the 25 homers, the second most in baseball.

If the National League Central race remains as tight as it is entering play today, with four teams within four and a half games of each other, perhaps adding an extra dominant starter would assure the top spot in the division, which could be the team's only path to the playoffs. Even after a six-game winning streak to start the second half, the Cubs are five and a half games back of the Colorado Rockies for the NL's second wild card spot.

There's no doubt Darvish has been very good this season for the Rangers, with a 3.45 ERA in 20 starts and 131 strikeouts in 125.1 innings pitched. He's a four-time All Star in his five-year major league career. Adding that to Lester and Quintana at the front of the rotation would make the Cubs a terrifying force for opposing teams.

But at the same time, what would it take to get him? Giving up zero major league talent was part of what made the Quintana trade so terrific for the Cubs. Losing a major league player would perhaps hurt the team's chances at a World Series win this season, which would be the whole point of acquiring Darvish in the first place.

It's trade season, so let the rumors keep flying.

35 Days to Kickoff: Grayslake North

35 Days to Kickoff: Grayslake North

CSNChicago.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 Jul. 31, we’ll unveil the @CSNPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 25.

School: Grayslake North

Head coach: Sam Baker

Assistant Coaches:  Andy Strahan, Jim West, Collin McKillip, Brian Johnson, Brian Horn, Scott Kapchinksi, Karl Jennrich, Jon Sawyer, Greg Geiger, Tim LaBrie

How they fared in 2016: 8-3 (5-2 Northern Lake County Conference), made the Class 6A state playoffs and defeated Lakes then lost to Cary-Grove in second round action.

2017 Regular Season Schedule:

August 25th @ Willowbrook

September 1st vs Sycamore

September 8th vs Lakes

September 15th @ North Chicago

September 22nd vs Round Lake

September 29th @ Wauconda

October 6th vs Grant

October 13th at Grayslake Central

October 20th vs Antioch

Biggest storyline: Can the Knights make a return visit to the IHSA state playoff field?

Names to watch this season:  Senior QB Austin Martineau Senior WR/DB Bret Lila

Biggest holes to fill: The Knights will need to reload on the offensive line with just one starter back in senior OL/DL Ryan Bernstein.

EDGY's Early Take: Grayslake North had a strong year in 2016 and with 14 starters returning (6 offense 8 defense) look to be right back in the hunt both in the Northern Lake County conference and in Class 6A.The Knights however will have plenty of challenges since the Northern Lake County conference is shaping up to be strong again this fall.