Any conversation about the Kishwaukee River Conference begins with Johnsburg.
Coach Dan DeBoeuf's team was the Class 4A state runner-up last season and the Skyhawks' returning talent gives them a solid chance to repeat as league champs, for starters.
"They are definitely the team to beat," Burlington Central coach Brian Melvin said of Johnsburg. "They are the elite in the conference right now."
Defensively, the Skyhawks were an absolute menace against KRC foes in 2016. They shut out four opponents (Richmond-Burton, Burlington Central, Woodstock North and Harvard) and held Marengo to a field goal. The only conference team to score a touchdown against them was Woodstock in a 46-7 loss.
The bad news for the six KRC teams that collectively managed just 10 points against Johnsburg? The defense returns four of five linebackers, two of three defensive backs and a lineman who played quite a bit.
The offense is retooled but should still be dangerous. Senior Jack Kegel steps in for graduated running back Alex Peete, who in 14 games rushed for 2,528 yards and 39 touchdowns. Last season Kegel carried 24 times for 297 yards and 4 touchdowns when he wasn't playing outside linebacker, where he registered 8 sacks and 41 tackles for loss among 101 total tackles. He'll play both ways.
Senior Adam Jayco replaces graduated quarterback Riley Buchanan, who threw for 1,556 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for 500 yards and 12 scores. Jayco is also a strong-legged kicker who hit a 52-yard field goal in a recent scrimmage, his coach said.
"In my opinion I don't think we'll miss a beat," DeBoeuf said. "(Kegel and Jayco) are really talented. They would have started at those positions on most teams last year if Kegel wasn't behind an all-state running back and Jayco wasn't behind an all-conference quarterback."
Jayco inherits a pair of senior wide receivers: Nico LoDolce (61 rec., 927 yards, 12 TD) and 6-foot-3, 185-pound senior Brody Frazier.
How does Johnsburg view its place in the conference this season after outscoring its KRC opponents 310-10 last fall?
"I think it's a good league for (Class) 4A for sure," DeBoeuf said. "Richmond-Burton is going to be tough. Central's enrollment is growing and their coach is doing a good job. Woodstock is over 1,000 kids and Woodstock North looks like they'll be tough again.
"It's going to be a great conference and our expectation is to win it. If we don't, that would be a disappointment, for sure."
Three other KRC teams reached the playoffs last season: Richmond-Burton (6-4, 5-1), Woodstock North (6-4, 3-3) and Marengo (5-5, 2-4), but two have new head coaches.
Richmond-Burton announced on Aug. 2 that Patrick Elder will not coach this season in the wake of his July 15 arrest in Spring Grove on a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. Veteran assistants Brett Zick and Tad DePorter will act as co-head coaches this season, Richmond-Burton School District 157 Superintendent Tom Lind confirmed Tuesday.
Marengo undergoes a change at the top for a more conventional reason. Matt Lynch left after 10 seasons to take the job at Fenton. The Indians are now led by former Minooka coach Paul Forsythe, who looks to extend the program's consecutive playoff appearance streak to three.
Woodstock North returns six starters on either side of the ball, a count that includes five seniors who play two ways: Trevor Stinger (OL/LB), Dylan Martinez (OL/DL), Collin Mergl (QB/LB), Nicco Mazzanti (RB/DB) and Joe Grover (RB/WR/DB).
"I think the KRC is going to be tough again this year," Woodstock North coach Jeff Schroeder said. "I really think multiple teams have a chance at making a run at the title and a playoff berth. I think we fit in that category."
Burlington Central (3-6, 3-3) missed the playoffs in Melvin's first season as coach, but the Rockets finished 2016 with upward trajectory. Following an 0-5 start they won 3 of their last 4 games against Woodstock, Marengo and Harvard sandwiched around a 22-16 loss to Woodstock North.
The Rockets return junior Johnny DiCostanzo, who played quarterback during the late-season surge. He has two formidable receivers to target in 6-foot-1 speedster Michael Kalusa and Texas transfer Dejsani Beamon (5-9, 160). They are joined by a junior class that went 8-1 on the sophomore level.
"How we do depends if the juniors are going to step up or not," Melvin said. "We had a really good summer and I think we have a really great dynamic on our team; the kids really like each other. Usually, you like your teammates but these guys stick up for each other. It's something I haven't seen in a long time."
Woodstock (4-5, 2-4) returns five starters on defense and four on offense. Offensively, senior running back Sean Doyle (6-1, 215) is back along with three starting linemen who average 275 pounds. The defense has five senior starters back in the fold, including tackle Javier Villalobos (5-11, 280).
Third-year Woodstock coach Tommy Thompson said his team has "extremely high expectations this year" after a great off-season.
"We will be consistent all through the roster," Thompson said, "which was evident during summer camp and helps significantly with guys possibly not playing both ways every down and others stepping up."
Harvard (1-8, 0-6) returns four two-way players: Ryan Stephens (WR/DB), Brett Lehman (OL/LB), Cole Miller (OL/DL) and Shawn Bough (TE/LB). Dylan Stephens steps in at quarterback.
"We are looking forward to Week 1 to see what we are made of," fourth-year Harvard coach Sean Saylor said. "Our goal each week is to plan and prepare individually to be 1-0 and make the playoffs."