Naperville Central's 2019 season was a good reminder that external expectations don't always line up with reality.
Not only were the Redhawks facing arguably the toughest schedule in the state, head coach Mike Stine and his staff were also attempting to reconfigure their offense after a pair of Division I-caliber wide receivers, Jadon Thompson and Reggie Fleurima, transferred into the district last summer.
The result was a disappointing 0-3 start that left Central needing to – and ultimately failing to – pull off a massive upset in Week 9 against eventual Class 6A champion East St. Louis to qualify for the postseason.
"We did have some new pieces coming in that weren't there, they weren't around at the summer," Stine said. "Football's a team sport. It's the ultimate team sport. You can have great individuals... they've got to learn their role. They've got to learn where they fit into the system.
"The first two or three games last year, we weren't very good offensively. We have a lot of talent but we weren't playing as a team and as a unit."
Head coach: Mike Stine (15th season)
Last year’s record: 4-5
Can the Redhawks avoid another slow start?
The 0-3 start in nonconference play and a Week 9 matchup with East St. Louis left Naperville Central with no margin for error during DuPage Valley Conference play last season.
The schedule won't be any easier this fall, so Stine is focused on getting his team better prepared for Week 1. Of course, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made that task more difficult; though, the Redhawks aren't alone there.
In any case, Stine said it's crucial for his senior and junior classes to gel before the 2020 season gets underway against Hinsdale Central.
"Fifty-five guys can't start, so some guys are going to get different roles, and you have to get kids to accept that and understand what the role is," Stine said. "Most coaches would say that's the biggest thing, to get that that camaraderie, to jell and to get the confidence in your teammates. You can't start to get that confidence unless you're out there on the field running around."
Players to Watch
The offense starts with senior Sam Jackson, who enters his third year as a varsity starter and his second at the quarterback position. Jackson, a Purdue commit, possesses an electric skill set. He threw for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns last season while rushing for 446 yards and six scores.
Jackson will lean more heavily on Fleurima after the Redhawks graduated their top two receivers (Thompson and Boaz Turner). Fleurima, a 6-2 junior, has roughly a dozen offers coming from multiple Power Five conference schools. Senior receiver Keon Green also is receiving interest from multiple Division I programs.
Receiver Matt Wood didn't see much playing time last fall, but Stine said he likes what he has seen from the senior in the offseason and expects Wood to have an expanded role.
Returning starters Nate Klingeman and Caden Wanner will anchor Central's offensive line.
Defensively, Stine said his inside linebackers, Shane Roth and Luke Peterson, could be as good a pairing as any in the state of Illinois.
Senior Aidan Ellison will also return at linebacker and kicker. "He'll be one of the top kickers in the state. He's got a strong leg," Stine said.
Central is also expecting big things from senior Patrick Grange, who moved from tight end to the defensive line midway through last season.
Newcomers You Need to Know
Elijah Jordan (218 pounds) is expected to see the bulk of the carries for the Redhawks. The senior got off to a slow start last season after missing most of the summer, but Stine called Jordan someone "people are definitely going to notice."
Junior Niko Gordon will have an expanded role that could come at running back, slot receiver or defensive back. Junior Owen Prucha started at quarterback on the sophomore level and will play receiver this year. Junior Quinn Hurley (280 pounds) should earn a spot on the offensive line, and junior Tristen Hall could see time at wideout.
2020 Schedule Analysis
Stine called last season's schedule "one of the most difficult in state history," and it's not going to get any easier this fall.
The Redhawks once again face Hinsdale Central in Week 1 and follow it up with a matchup against defending Class 8A state champion Lincoln-Way East. Central will face East St. Louis once again in Week 9. The nine regular season opponents on the Naperville Central schedule combined for a 63-33 record last season.
The only newcomer to the schedule is Detroit Central Catholic, a program with more than a dozen state championships. The Redhawks are scheduled to make the trip to Michigan in Week 3.
And Central will of course have to navigate the always difficult DuPage Valley slate.
The talent is clearly there for Naperville Central to be a factor in the Class 8A playoffs. But as last year showed, the Redhawks will first need to survive a brutal schedule if they hope to make noise in November.