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Daily Herald's 2014 Season Coverage
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Article updated: 8/22/2014 10:19 PM
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Vernon Hills still young
 

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Vernon Hills still young
  • Head coach Bill Bellecomo demonstrates defensive technique during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Head coach Bill Bellecomo demonstrates defensive technique during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Quarterback Connor McNamara throws the ball during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Quarterback Connor McNamara throws the ball during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Defensive lineman Steven Didier, right, makes a tackle in drills during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Defensive lineman Steven Didier, right, makes a tackle in drills during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • Drew Winegar runs with the ball during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday.

    Purchase Photo | Drew Winegar runs with the ball during football practice at Vernon Hills High School Thursday. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 

On the day a national news story broke regarding academic fraud with the University of Notre Dame's football team, a TV helicopter hovered over Vernon Hills' Rust-Oleum Field.

TV personnel parked their vans, waiting and hoping to speak to Cougars coach Bill Bellecomo about ex-VH wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, one of the players mentioned in the ND story.

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Forget it.

It will take a lot more than that to distract Bellecomo this season.

"I'm making a conscious effort to have more fun this year," said Bellecomo, flashing a smile that was absent too often last season.

Last year wasn't so fun for the Cougars, who went 3-6 in former longtime assistant Bellecomo's first season as head coach. Since Daniels and fellow star wideout Evan Spencer (Ohio State) graduated, the Cougars have missed the state playoffs three years in a row.

They started last season by losing quarterback Jordan Freibrun to an injury in the fourth quarter of their season opener, dropped their first three games and never recovered.

"I was so focused on wanting to be successful right away," Bellecomo said. "(This season), we're focused on us and what we can control."

At a practice last week, with nary a TV helicopter nor van in sight, the Cougars ran drills and worked on honing their spread offense. Excited kids -- not motorized vehicles -- made noise.

"I think this team is looking better than we did at this point last year," senior linebacker/running back Richard Clark said. "It seems like everyone's moving around fast. ... I think we're going to be real fast this year."

A year ago, Connor McNamara suddenly had to learn real fast. He was to serve as Freibrun's backup, but the sophomore wound up starting the Cougars' final eight games at QB. As expected, McNamara experienced ups and downs.

"We wanted to bring Connor along slowly," Bellecomo said. "But we were forced into playing him. The first three weeks we had some growing pains. We had some turnovers. But then he started to settle down and really develop as the year went on."

"He's been looking good," Clark said of McNamara. "I think he's looking a lot more comfortable."

While McNamara has improved, sophomore Kyle Hall has also impressed at QB.

"We got a nice little quarterback dual that we didn't think was going to transpire," Bellecomo said. "Both are playing real well."

Besides McNamara, wide receiver/running back Andre Salazar and wide receiver Kiwanne Durant also played on varsity as sophomores last year. Running backs Clark and Kyle Thomas also have the ability to make plays. Clark, who got called up to varsity during his sophomore year, went downstate in track last spring.

"We're looking to spread teams out a little more and trying to get all of our athletes in space," Bellecomo said.

Defensively, the Cougars will be young. The veteran upfront in the team's 3-4 scheme is senior tackle Steven Didier, who is the brother of former Vernon Hills stars Wayne (defensive tackle) and David (inside linebacker).

"Any time we got a Didier on defense, it's a good thing," Bellecomo said with a smile. "I think this is nine out of my 16 years here we've had a Didier on defense.

"So we got a chance."

Veterans Thomas and Clark will man outside linebacker spots. Sophomore inside linebacker Chick Smith was an end-of-the-season call-up as a freshman. He's the brother of former Cougars basketball star Sydney Smith.

"He competes about as hard as she does," Bellecomo said. "He's going to be special for us."

Johnny McDonald, the son of Vernon Hills athletic director Brian McDonald, will start at defensive tackle. The secondary could feature multiple sophomores.

Bellecomo is clearly more comfortable in Year 2. Last season, the Cougars were also adjusting to the spread offense after running triple option since the program started under coach Tony Monken.

"The kids got the system down," Bellecomo said. "Our practices are up-tempo. It's just been an easier transition this year."

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