There appears to be a strong youth movement sweeping over high school football in Lake County, where being sophomoric is turning out to be a pretty good thing.
Not only are more teams than ever promoting young underclassmen to varsity, many are counting heavily upon them for some serious production. Among the 14 teams in the Daily Herald's Lake County coverage area, 12 include sophomores on their rosters for a total of 31 varsity sophomores.
As a general rule of thumb, most coaches don't move sophomores up to the varsity during the regular season just to have them fill out the sidelines during games. That would be cheating them out of the reps they could otherwise be getting with their classmates at the sophomore level.
Rather, many of these young players this season are getting major varsity minutes and, in some cases, are even playing important positions such as quarterback and running back. Some are starters on defense.
"There are a lot of reasons for it," Carmel coach Andy Bitto said of the youth movement. "I think kids are coming in (to high school) better. Youth football is better than it used to be with a lot of certified coaches. Kids are training better, before they get to high school. They're eating better. It makes them ready for high school football."
Bitto also theorizes that numbers could be down across the board at the high school level because of the concerns about safety and injury that the emphasis on concussions has brought to the forefront in recent years. That has opened the door for more sophomores to contribute.
"I think there are some kids who aren't even coming out for football because of that (worries about concussions), so if your numbers are down, you're looking to create some depth at the varsity level and you look at your sophomores," Bitto said. "But I think it's mostly a mix of all of the factors, and that kids are definitely getting better earlier."
Bitto starts four sophomores on his varsity squad, including top running back Darrius Crump, who ran for 144 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries last week against St. Viator.
The other sophomores in the Corsairs' lineup are linebacker Cal Coughlin, tight end Noah Turner and 6-foot-7, 244-pound offensive lineman Sean Foster.
"My rule is that I'm not going to bring a sophomore up unless he's going to start for us," Bitto said. "Our sophomores are doing a great job for us."
It's a sentiment that coaches elsewhere share.
There are four teams in the Herald's Lake County coverage area that start sophomores at quarterback.
Merrick Gentile is putting up big rushing and passing yardage at high-scoring Grayslake North, which is 4-0.
Kevin Malisheski, one of five sophomores on the Wauconda roster, has guided the Bulldogs to a 3-1 start while Connor McNamara assumed the reins at Vernon Hills when senior starter Jordan Freibrun went down with a broken leg.
And Gavin Graves at Mundelein has been a full-time starter at quarterback ever since he walked on campus last year…as a freshman.
"Our whole offense is really young and sometimes we make young mistakes," Mundelein coach George Kaider said. "But our quarterback play with Gavin continues to really improve and there is a lot of potential there."
Other standout sophomores in the area this year include: Antioch running back Griffin Hill, Lakes running back Devyn Cedzidlo, Lakes wide receiver Jeremy Sasser, Lake Zurich running back Ben Klett, Libertyville wide receiver Riley Lees, Vernon Hills running back Andres Salazar, Vernon Hills wide receiver Kiwanne Durant, Warren running back Jalen Powe and Wauconda wide receiver Jake Grobelny.
So far, Klett has been the top rusher for run-oriented Lake Zurich in three of four games.
Meanwhile, Stevenson and Round Lake are the two schools in the Herald's Lake County coverage area that started the season with no sophomores on their rosters. But last year, Stevenson produced two huge sophomore success stories in Willie Bourbon and Cameron Green, who started (and continue to start) at quarterback and wide receiver, respectively. Green is getting all kinds of serious Division I attention.
"I think a lot of it is that kids are maturing faster," said Grayslake North coach Steve Wood, who knows all about sophomore success stories.
Wood made Gentile the second sophomore in a row to start at quarterback for Grayslake North. The first was AJ Fish, who ended his three-year career last fall as one of the most prolific passers and yardage gainers in Lake County history.
"Kids are bigger, they're lifting weights earlier," Wood said. "The feeder programs are (more developed) and when you watch that, you can see what you have coming down the line and you prepare for that.
"Kids are coming in (to high school) and they are ready to play."
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