The Larkin football program begins the 2014 season in a precarious position from a participation standpoint, but new coach Dragan Teonic believes that corner has already been turned.
Hired in May after he spent four years turning struggling Hersey into a playoff team, Teonic isn't concerned that the Larkin program has only 48 players between the varsity and sophomores combined, so few, in fact, that the two groups will play together as a varsity team on Friday nights. Those who don't get enough playing time on Fridays will compete in junior varsity games on Saturday mornings.
The roster could have been larger, Teonic said, but he laid down the law about committing to the program as soon as summer camp began. Those who accepted the new coach's expected commitment level comprise the team going forward. Those who couldn't adhere to his rules are no longer on the roster. Without apology.
"We could have had larger numbers if we let certain kids stay on the team and do their little transient, show-up-once-a-week-like-they-used-to bit," Teonic said. "The good news is our commitment level to each other and the program and the school is higher, so we have the right numbers right now.
"The issue is the commitment. They used to operate like, ‘Well, we need the kids. Let's let them do whatever the (heck) they want to do.' Well, no way. That does not work here. I think kids are more drawn to and more interested in playing for a coach who draws a harder line. This is the commitment. This is what we expect. End of story. We're not going to negotiate with a 16-year-old on their level of commitment. That has always worked to get more players out. Always. We had high numbers at Riverside-Brookfield, we had really high numbers at Harper, Hersey's numbers exploded through the roof. Now our numbers are starting to come up here."
Teonic points to the 41 players out for the freshman team as evidence the program turnaround has begun. The sophomore team will be reinstated next season if participation numbers hold in the thirties, he said.
Teonic has a complete rebuild on his hands. Beyond changing the culture of the program, he and his staff face a more pressing issue: 27 seniors graduated from a team that went 3-6. Few starters return. Those that do are learning a new system, though elements of the spread-based offense are familiar to most.
One key player on both sides of the ball will be running back/defensive back Cameron Tomlin. He was used sparingly in a backup role as a sophomore, when he rushed 29 times for 136 yards and a touchdown. A 5-foot-7, 160-pound back with exceptional balance and a work ethic to match, according to his coach, Tomlin comes from a football family: his father Tyrell Tomlin starred for Elgin High in the 1990s.
The only other offensive player returning is senior lineman Ty Former (5-10, 268). The junior played center last season but he moves to guard this year.
Sophomore Elijah Hernandez (5-7, 155) will play quarterback. He has speedy receivers to throw to in juniors AJ Hunter (5-11, 150), Chevelle Clements (5-9, 165), and David Hibbler (5-10, 150).
Defensively, junior linebacker Will Lopez has impressed his coach throughout camp, as has junior lineman Roy Lara (5-10, 178), who has "great feet." They will be part of a zone-based defensive scheme that seeks to funnel the ball to the outside so the Royals can use their team speed to chase it down.
This isn't the same kind of team Teonic will field a year from now once the Royals have been through a full off-season of his weight training regimen, but the new coach can't wait to go live with the hardworking players he has inherited.
"I like our kids," he said. "They are gritty and tough. They have a lot of fight. I like their attitude. They've adjusted to me well and to the staff. It's night and day between June and now. Night and day. But we have a long way to go, too. I'm having a lot of fun working with them, so let's see where it goes."