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Kaneland coach Tom Fedderly has never been much for predictions, even with a squad as talented and experienced as this.
"Obviously we have a lot of guys who've played a lot of big games and have had some conference championships, things like that," said Fedderly, in his 20th season in the program. "We've got some goals but I told the kids right away, we're not going to be saying how good we are and we're not going to be worrying about what the papers are saying about us. We're just going to be doing our job."
That would be dominating the Northern Illinois Big 12 East and contending in Class 5A. Since the league debuted Kaneland is 15-0 with three straight conference titles. The Knights have won 28 straight regular-season games and reached the Class 5A semifinals in 2010 and 2011, losing to state champion Montini each time. Last year's second-round loss to Lincoln-Way West, while somewhat surprising, was understandable considering quarterback Drew David had a broken thumb.
David's healthy, stronger and returns for a third year, one of 15 returning starters including nine on offense. That's not counting impact kicker Matt Rodriguez, who scored 71 points and made 6 of 7 field goals with a long of 43 yards.
"I think we're going to have a pretty balanced attack, we're going to be able to run and throw," Fedderly said. And block and tackle.
Whether in the spread offense or the 3-5 defense Kaneland graduated only two starting linemen, Zach Theis and Nick Sharp. Right guard Alex Snyder is a four-year starter, left guard Shane Jorgensen a three-year starter. Tight end Tyler Slamans returns as does left tackle Joe Komel, who has six scholarship offers.
Defensively, opponents will find nose tackle Jaumaureo Phillips quicker at 310 pounds than at 350. He'll join returning starting tackle Justin Diddell, who led the Knights last year with 5 sacks.
All this beef allows the so-called skill players to wreak havoc. Last season David threw for 1,873 yards and 23 touchdowns; he looks to improve upon his 405 yards rushing with 4 touchdowns. David targets a receiving corps headed by Dylan Nauert, who caught 30 balls for 563 yards and 7 touchdowns. Track sprinter Brandon Bishop returns at receiver and Fedderly's son, Connor, will get more reps.
Senior tailback Jesse Balluff, a three-year starter with an offer from Colgate, earned honorable-mention all-state after running for 958 yards and 13 touchdowns and totaling 1,414 yards of offense. Fullback Nate Dyer was red zone gold, scoring 11 touchdowns on 63 carries.
Another three-year starter, middle linebacker Gary Koehring returns a team-high 100 tackles and 18 for loss. The linebacker spot may have suffered the greatest graduation toll in Ryan Lawrence and Blake Bradford, but Slamans returns as does Sam Bower, who made 10 tackles for loss and led the Knights with 6 quarterback hurries. Junior Dan Hammermeister joins the crowd at linebacker as does Isaac Swithers in the secondary, where in 2012 cornerback J.R. Vest made 4 interceptions and broke up 8 passes.
Kaneland competed well against larger teams in summer 7-on-7 games — and beat defending state champs Aurora Christian and Rochester — and addressed technique flaws off the Lincoln-Way West tape.
How good are the Knights? Not that again.
"I'm going to say like I do every year: go 1-0," Fedderly said. "And then we want to compete for a conference championship, we want to get a home playoff game and go from there."