Joe Wardynski has plenty of questions to answer as Wheaton North's season starts.
So a sure thing like Xander Mueller is nice.
Mueller, a senior linebacker and Northwestern recruit, is the unquestioned leader for a Falcons' team that will start four sophomores because of injuries and five transfers.
"He's a talented kid, a smart kid, our leader for sure," said Wardynski, Wheaton North's coach, of Mueller. "He has a lot of tools and will help us on both sides of the ball. Hopefully he has the kind of year he's expected to have. If he does we can be just fine defensively."
Mueller, All-State academic in 2018 with a 4.5 GPA, in April chose Northwestern from 17 offers, including Louisville. He'll join his brother Erik, also a linebacker, in Evanston.
Mueller, 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, first realized he could play college ball as a freshman. As a kid he liked baseball the most, and he played middle school basketball. He's always been tall, and used to play receiver. At Northwestern his size will probably put him at weakside linebacker, but at Wheaton North he's in the middle.
"I like being in the middle of everything, involved with all the things on defense," Mueller said.
Mueller certainly was last year.
He had 78 solo tackles, 10 for loss, with three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles. He's got plenty of greatest hits, but one stands out.
"St. Charles North, they went to state last year, it was 3-3 in the fourth quarter, I got double-teamed, I blitzed and I kind of flipped the quarterback," Mueller said. "He ended up throwing an interception."
That kind of play, and a tantalizing combination of size and athleticism, is what makes Mueller unique.
"He understands the game and is instinctual," Wardynski said. "Where other kids are content to make a tackle he will make a tackle and try to strip the ball away. Other kids may not recognize pass route combos; he knows if one route goes one direction he can expect another going the other way. Simple things that other kids may never pick up, he's got in his head and puts to good use."
It's a good thing to have on a Falcons' team that's had unexpected losses. Five players transferred out, two to Glenbard West and three to Wheaton Academy.
Junior defensive back Riley Dravet, who started every game last year, tore his hamstring in track and is out until at least October. Receiver Christian Halstead, who's been a starter for two years, also may be lost with a torn hamstring. Defensive back Tommy Gubenko, one of three projected starters back defensively from last year's 4-5 team, is nursing an injury.
"It's a shame," Wardynski said, addressing the transfers. "Our kids have handled it real well. It's pulled them closer I think."
Nathan Love, besides Mueller Wheaton North's most talented player, has moved from quarterback to defensive back. He also could play running back and some slot. Love's shift opens up the quarterback spot for sophomore Mark Forcucci, last year's sophomore team starter.
"Typically if we start one sophomore it's a surprise but this year we'll start four," Wardynski said. "It does open up some opportunities. In the long run we'll try to use it as a positive."
Players to watch
Xander Mueller sr. LB
Nathan Love sr. DB/WR/RB
Mark Forcucci so. QB
Braden Aguiar sr. DB