The off-season decision by Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg to move senior Kyle Norberg from linebacker to fullback seems like a no-brainer in retrospect.
After Norberg, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound Mack truck of a ballcarrier, led the Trojans to a second-place finish in Class 6A -- a performance for which he has been named the honorary captain of the 2012 Daily Herald all-area team in the Fox Valley -- it's easy to look back and say "the experiment," as Seaburg sometimes called the position switch, was a choice arrived at easily.
Any such retelling qualifies as revisionist history.
Norberg had already drawn Division-I college offers from North Dakota and South Dakota last spring for his performance in two varsity seasons at linebacker. Moreover, the Trojans had a two-year veteran fullback returning in fellow senior Patrick O'Malley.
Nevertheless, Seaburg and his staff felt moving Norberg -- Cary-Grove's most physically gifted athlete -- to fullback and playing O'Malley on the defensive line would strengthen the team at both positions. Someone from the talented but untested junior class would have to step up and fill Norberg's spot at linebacker. The belief was Norberg could transform Cary-Grove's offense from a ball-control attack to an explosive one.
It was a good plan. Except it wasn't coming together very well as late as midsummer.
A good student with a 3.5 grade-point average, Norberg was having difficulty mastering the nuances of playing fullback in the flexbone option offense, a position he had never played. In fact, the only previous offensive experience he had came as a middle school guard for the Cary Junior Trojans youth football program.
The position switch was not easy to accept for the 18-year old Cary resident, who had attended multiple one-day camps in the off-season to improve his play at linebacker.
"I know he didn't like it early on, not because he was selfish, but because he knew he was good at defense," Seaburg said. "He wasn't good at fullback at the start and it was frustrating to him. He had those initial human reactions of wanting to quit. People want to be comfortable and playing fullback was very uncomfortable for him."
Among several people to offer Norberg advice was 2005 all-area honorary captain Alex Kube, who played for Cary-Grove's 2004 state runner-up team and later starred as a strong safety at Northern Illinois.
Kube, who worked out with Norberg on Sundays to improve his agility, could relate to the younger player's situation better than anyone. He, too, had been a two-year standout on defense before he was asked to move to offense by hall-of-fame Cary-Grove coach Bruce Kay.
"Alex told me he got moved to running back when he was a senior," Norberg said. "He said you've got to do what's best for the team. From then on I looked at it from that standpoint. I wanted to do anything to help my team."
Norberg continued to work in the weight room with the same ferocity with which he had approached weight training since his freshman year, expertly mentored by his father, Bill, a former Mr. America. After finishing Cary-Grove's morning workouts, teammates would often see him riding his bike to another gym at midday for a second lift.
Though Norberg was in the best shape of his life and running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, something wasn't clicking at fullback during summer practices. He was having trouble remembering the plays, his timing on those delicate handoffs with returning quarterback Quinn Baker was off, his elbows were getting "busted up" and he was fumbling too often.
With time running out before the summer session ended, Seaburg met with his staff to discuss Norberg's progress. He also consulted Kay, who had elevated Norberg to the varsity as a sophomore.
"It got to the point I called Bruce in the summer and I asked 'When do you cut a guy loose when you don't think it's going to work out?' " Seaburg recalled this week. "Kyle was really struggling with the position. At that point we talked about two-platooning with Kyle and O'Malley.
"We decided to stay with it and Kyle was persistent. At some point I think he bought into the position and really took ownership and took it as a challenge.
Said Norberg: "I told myself, 'While you're here, why not try to be the best in the state at that position?' That was my mindset."
Norberg watched films of his own footwork in summer drills. He studied films of O'Malley playing the same position as a junior and sophomore. He even watched older films still in the system of former Cary-Grove fullback and 2009 all-area honorary captain Eric Chandler, who won a state championship playing the same position.
Still, no one was quite sure what to expect when the season opened against St. Charles East. Norberg wasn't completely sure he knew what he was doing on each play, but he did what his coaches told him. "They just told me to run hard," he said.
Nerves were soothed two hours later after Norberg exploded for 240 yards and 2 touchdowns on 22 carries.
He was still adjusting to the position, still learning as Cary-Grove subsequently faced the two toughest defenses it would see until the postseason. Lake Zurich held Norberg to 45 yards on 10 carries and Crystal Lake South limited him to a season-low 19 yards on 6 carries. Though he was held scoreless in each game, Cary-Grove prevailed both times, and Seaburg said he was impressed to see his fullback gain 9 yards on plays that normally yielded 4.
Norberg's comfort level grew the following week in a 49-13 win at Hampshire. He rushed 11 times for 143 yards and 2 touchdowns, including runs of 45 and 18 yards.
"When he ran off that long touchdown run against Hampshire, that's when we really knew he was our fullback," Seaburg said.
Norberg wasn't sure until the following week.
"I think when I finally understood was Jacobs week," Norberg said. "During the previous games the coaches told me to run hard and that's just what I did. Watching more film, I finally understood. Something clicked in my head. I knew where my blocks were going to be, how to hit the hole. From there, the rest is history, I guess."
From that point forward, Norberg and the Cary-Grove offense were hard to handle. He was held to less than 121 yards only once in his final 10 games, a streak started by a 271-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Jacobs. Norberg used his burst to get through holes, then used his 4.6 speed to pull away for touchdowns of 63, 74 and 26 yards in a 45-14 victory.
Jacobs coach Bill Mitz, a longtime Cary resident whose teams at Stevenson faced future NFL running backs like Rashard Mendenhall (Niles West) and Michael Turner (North Chicago), was so impressed by Norberg he picked up the phone on his behalf and called some of his college recruiting contacts to give them the scoop.
"We played against Mendenhall and Turner for years and I've seen some good running backs, and I honestly put Kyle right up there with those guys," Mitz said. "I'm not saying he's going to play in the NFL, but I think more schools should be taking a look at this kid. I was hoping (Seaburg) wasn't going to make that move knowing what I'd heard in the neighborhood and from what I'd seen of (Norberg) on film playing defense. When they made the switch I said uh-oh."
Norberg went on to run for 177 yards and a touchdown against McHenry. Then he blitzed Huntley for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns in a showdown for first place in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference.
"I've seen a lot of D-I kids and he's as good a high-school football player as you're going to see," Huntley coach John Hart said. "From what I read, he's only been at fullback for a year and he grasped it. I wish for our sake they would have stuck with their first instinct and left him at linebacker."
Norberg enjoyed a 259-yard, 2-touchdown performance against Dundee-Crown and gained 65 yards and 2 touchdowns against defending state champion Prairie Ridge in the regular-season finale.
Fully up to speed on his option assignments after months of continued repetition and film study, Norberg was a force in the Class 6A playoffs, just as Seaburg and his staff had hoped when they made the decision last summer. He needed only 13 carries to gain 213 yards and score 4 touchdowns in the playoff opener against Rockford Auburn, and he followed up with 204 yards and 3 more scores in a 49-21 victory over St. Patrick.
Norberg was held scoreless and fumbled twice in a quarterfinal against Crystal Lake Central, but his 141 yards on 31 carries helped control the clock in a 7-0 victory. His 165-yard, 3-touchdown semifinal performance on the artificial turf at Lake Forest helped send the Trojans to their third state-title game appearance and first since the 2009 championship season.
Though Cary-Grove lost to Crete-Monee in the title game, 33-26, Norberg finished strong with team highs in carries (30) and rushing yards (121) to go with a touchdown.
Norberg's final season totals more than validate Seaburg's decision. He finished his only season as a high school fullback with a new program record: 2,334 rushing yards on 228 carries for an amazing average of 10.2 yards per attempt. He scored 26 touchdowns.
Norberg continued to play defense 15-20 percent of the time, by his estimation. He contributed 26.5 tackles, 3 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. He was named all-FVC Valley and Class 6A all-state by the Illinois Football Coaches Association. The gamble paid off.
"It looked like a no-brainer decision to someone who wasn't a part of it, but it was a very difficult decision to make," Seaburg said. "It took a lot of patience and time and mostly Kyle's determination to get good at it."
Northern Illinois has shown strong interest in Norberg but has yet to make an offer, he said. Meanwhile, Air Force and Iowa are now scheduled to visit in the coming weeks based on his breakout season. South Dakota and North Dakota remain in touch. No matter how his college recruitment unfolds, Norberg will always have a special senior season to recall fondly.
"Looking back on it, I'm just glad I was able to do what I did, to do what was best for the program and help us succeed," Norberg said. " I knew we weren't going to be a bad team, but I didn't expect to get where we ended up. Although it didn't end up the way we wanted it to, me and all the other guys are definitely proud of what we accomplished. I wouldn't want to be with another group of guys."