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Article updated: 8/28/2014 7:53 AM
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Northern Illinois Big XII looking better than ever
 

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Northern Illinois Big XII looking better than ever
 

The king indeed lived long, the king being the Knights.

Kaneland won Northern Illinois Big XII East football crowns the conference's first three years. In Week 8 last season Sycamore snapped the Knights' 35-game regular-season win streak, capturing the title.

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This makes the Spartans favored this year, right?

Right?

"I'd say we're the team to beat if we had the same kids as last year," said Sycamore coach Joe Ryan.

"Do I think we have a quality team? I think so. I think it'll just take some time to mold. And whatever time it takes, I think we'll be solid, I just don't know how long it's going to take," he said.

Following the departure of Streator and Dixon from the West division and Rochelle's shift to the West creating two divisions of five teams, the East may be the strongest in the conference's brief history.

"I think it's going to be as competitive from top to bottom probably as it's ever been. I don't know if there's a clear front-runner," said Morris coach Alan Thorson, who graduated 21 of 22 starters from his 2012 Class 5A runner-up team but now has 13 returning starters.

They include three-year starting two-way lineman T.J. Layne, linemen Zach Hansen and Andrew Faught, linebackers Robbie Neucci and Matt Feiden, 1,000-yard running back Jake Walker and 6-foot-3, 210-pound quarterback Griffin Sobol.

Kaneland coach Tom Fedderly believes Sycamore remains the front-runner. The Spartans return running back and cornerback Dion Hooker, probably the fastest player in the conference at least on a track. Banged up last season, he still ran for 700 yards.

Ryan has another three-year starter in linebacker Brett Weaver, who interests Mid-American Conference schools, junior left tackle Zach Kalk and another three-year starter in all-conference center Daniel Coovert.

Fedderly also mentions coach Karl Hoinkes' Yorkville team as much improved, with eight players who were up as sophomores including returning all-conference safety A.J. Foster. Yorkville made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2002.

Here's the kicker from Fedderly: "Everybody's talking about DeKalb."

The Barbs, 5-5 overall last season and 2-3 in the league, tied with Yorkville, haven't won a conference title since 1989 in the Upstate Eight.

But second-year DeKalb coach Matt Weckler returns arguably the top player in the conference, four-year starting running back Dre Brown, headed to Illinois. He ran for around 1,400 yards with 19 touchdowns. Two other halfbacks, Tony Tate and Eriq Torrey, and backup James Robinson, joined Brown on state-qualifying sprint relays last spring. They'll find daylight between returning starting linemen Hayden LaPoint, Caleb DeWeese and DeVonte Thompson.

"As a whole, on the East side in my opinion it's probably the most balanced that it's been that I can remember, even as outsider looking in," said Weckler, a former head coach at Belvidere.

"People ask me about the conference this year and I say basically any team on the East side could beat any other team on East side, at least on paper."

That's why Fedderly's goal is always to go 1-0 each week.

His Knights graduated the NIBXII offensive and defensive players of the year and a literal ton of talent on both sides of the line. Yet they return starters such as two-way player Danny Hammermeister, linemen Andrew Kray, Zach Thielk and Jake Gomes, running back Isaac Swithers and Connor Fedderly, the receiver and coach's son getting some college looks.

Blending in are juniors like quarterback Jake Marczuk, lineman Logan Strang and receiver Mitch Groen. They helped the 8-1 sophomores tie Morris for the title at that level. Junior or senior, they've all been through Kaneland's winning program. When times are tough, that means something.

"Every week is going to be a battle," Tom Fedderly said. "It's going to be anybody can beat anybody."

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