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."

White Sox Talk Podcast: Jose Quintana trade rumors and SoxFest preview

White Sox Talk Podcast: Jose Quintana trade rumors and SoxFest preview

When will a possible Jose Quintana trade go from a watch to a warning?

Chuck Garfien, Dan Hayes, Ryan McGuffey and Chris Kamka break down the Quintana trade talks and what it will be like for him this weekend at SoxFest after months of trade rumors.

The guys also discuss what the White Sox roster might look like on Opening Day, and Hayes reveals his 2016 Hall of Fame ballot.

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Plus listen for a special White Sox Talk Podcast giveaway: two free passes to SoxFest and the chance to play bags with Garfien and Todd Frazier at SoxFest.

Check out the latest episode below:

For Tom Rees, coaching gig at Notre Dame always seemed like an inevitability

For Tom Rees, coaching gig at Notre Dame always seemed like an inevitability

The last time Tom Rees played a game for Notre Dame, he was still known as Tommy Rees — but his coach put forth an offer that didn't come as a surprise to anyone in the press room at Yankee Stadium. 

"I'm a Tommy Rees fan for life," Kelly said after Notre Dame's 2013 Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers. "… He'll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him, he's got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly anytime."

Rees is joining Notre Dame as a full-time quarterbacks coach, not just as a coach-in-training graduate assistant role. The 24-year-old — whose father, Bill, has held a number of scouting roles in the NFL — only has two coaching stops on his resume, a graduate assistant role at Northwestern in 2015 and an offensive assistant job with the San Diego Chargers last year. But his lack of experience is more than made up for by the simple fact that, while at Notre Dame from 2010-2013, there was a well-established belief held by coaches and teammates that one day the Lake Bluff, Ill. native one day would coach in some capacity. 

"I'm very excited to have Tom join our staff," Kelly said in a statement Tuesday. "He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that's unique. He's a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.

"As a former quarterback at Notre Dame, Tom also has a rare ability to truly relate with the quarterbacks on our roster. He's literally sat in their seat, dealt with the ups and downs, faced the criticism, deflected the praise, and all that comes with playing the position at Notre Dame. He can genuinely mentor them — not only on the football field, but in the classroom and the community as well."

Rees effectively became a player/coach in 2012, when a July arrest for resisting law enforcement and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor led to a one-game suspension that knocked him out of what was a four-person competition to be the team's starting quarterback. Everett Golson ultimately emerged from that fray, but Rees was a fixture as both a mentor to and a replacement for the redshirt freshman as the Irish rolled to the BCS Championship with an undefeated regular season record. 

Consider what Rees said about his relationship with Golson prior to the 2013 BCS Championship:

"There'd be a couple late night discussions," Rees said. "He'd ask me what I thought he needed to improve on, you know, don't hold anything back. And I told him the truth sometimes -- I told him the truth all the time, sometimes it wasn't what he wanted to hear. But any way I could help, and I've had a lot of fun working with him."

Rees' playing time that year was important, yet sporadic. So during the week and from the sidelines, he took more of a coach's point of view with the Irish offense, which teammates said was beneficial when he took over the starting job again in 2013 follow Golson's academic suspension. 

"Not being a stating quarterback, it's sort of pushed him to become more of a leader and more of a coach," former offensive lineman Chris Watt said before the 2013 season. "I think that helped him see the game a little bit differently than before." 

Rees will be primarily tasked with grooming redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush, a guy who some around the program thought was the most talented quarterback on Notre Dame's roster the last few years. Of course, Wimbush's offensive knowledge wasn't near the level possessed by Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer, but his throwing and running ability are both mouth-watering traits that Rees will have a chance to mold.

That Rees is getting his coaching start in his mid-20's isn't particularly surprising. In many ways, has always been on track for this role, and maybe more (think offensive coordinator).

"When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things," Rees said Tuesday. "First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater. I didn't know when or if this opportunity might present itself, but I'm so grateful and honored that it did. I'm ready to get things rolling with this great staff and group of student-athletes."