Almost the entire offensive line graduated and so did a 1,000-yard rusher. But that doesn’t mean the bar isn’t still set high for Evanston’s football team this fall.

An influx of hungry juniors, and returning seniors who sense that there’s opportunity knocking for them could make for a winning combination as the Wildkits seek to qualify for the Illinois High School Association Class 8A state playoffs for the third year in a row.

Evanston opens against Chicago Hubbard on Friday at 7 p.m. at Lazier Field, the first step toward earning at least one of the six regular season victories needed to keep playing in the postseason. And despite all of the new faces on both sides of the ball, ETHS head coach Mike Burzawa is confident that this team can get the job done.

“Absolutely, we can be a playoff team,” said Burzawa. “We have experience at the skill positions and a great pool of hard-working linemen. We have great speed on the perimeter, and a veteran quarterback coming back. We still need to grow and develop on both sides of the ball, but I expect big things this season.

“The goal is always the same — qualify for the state playoffs and once you get there, win and advance. We know it’s time for us to turn the corner (and be a playoff contender) — and we have the right kids to do that. When the kids put together their mission statement for this year they talked about bringing November football back to Evanston. We want to be relentless about achieving that goal.

“This group has really been locked in since the preseason started. But, of course, we haven’t hit any adversity yet. We’ll see how we respond when things get tough.”

The Wildkits won’t be allowed to ease into the season this fall. They play three teams ranked in the Top 20 in a preseason estimate by the Chicago Sun-Times — New Trier, Maine South and Palatine — but the Kits do play six of their nine regular season contests at home this year.

ETHS will miss three-year starters Mo Brown and Christian Nielsen in the offensive line and running back Ben Easington, who totaled 1,147 yards rushing and scored a team-high 13 touchdowns last fall. Tackle Trey Dawkins (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) is back to anchor a new starting unit that will likely feature junior Sawyer Brown (5-9, 225) at center, junior Izzy Lobin (6-3, 270) at the other tackle and seniors Henry Canafax (6-0, 230) and Andrew Primous (6-4, 270) at the guard spots. Help will also come up front from junior Egan Schliesmann (5-9, 220).

In the backfield, the bulk of the carries will be shared by juniors Malik Ross (5-9, 170) and Cameron Powell (5-10, 200) along with sophomore Quadre Nicholson (5-10, 175). Ross averaged almost 5 yards per carry last year in spot duty on offense, while Powell rushed for over 1,100 yards at the sophomore level. Nicholson actually achieved a rare feat for an Evanston freshman when he ran for 115 yards in a second week victory over Chicago Foreman last fall.

Burzawa, a former running back himself, is excited about the options each candidate can bring to the table on offense. “We have a lot of backs we like this year,” said the veteran coach. “Both Malik and Quadre bring great explosiveness and speed, and they run with great vision, while Cam is more of a downhill runner. Kameron Kull (5-9, 170) and Cion Miller-Smith (5-6, 160) will also see some playing time.”

Senior Drew Dawkins (5-9, 170) returns as the starting quarterback after completing 49 percent (48-of-98) of his passing attempts for 728 yards and 9 touchdowns as a junior. He was only intercepted twice, and there isn’t a throw that he can’t make on a football field even though he doesn’t have the size of a prototypical QB.

“I think Drew plays with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder because people are always bringing up his (lack of) size,” said Burzawa. “He had a fantastic summer in our 7-on-7s. The ball was really flinging off his hands and we have a tremendous amount of confidence in him. We’re going to do a lot of fun things on offense with Drew back there.

“Drew gives us a lot of versatility both as a pure runner and a pure thrower. He can be explosive on offense, and I think he understands the (defensive) coverages better this year. The game has slowed down a lot for him. He makes the second and third level throws with a high degree of accuracy, and we’ll be able to do different things with him at quarterback, more than we’ve done in the past decade or so.”

Dawkins will find plenty of willing targets at receiver, where junior Mike Axelrood (6-2, 190), junior Gerrad Lamour (5-10, 165), junior Trenton Bertrand (5-8, 160), senior Roman Hunt (6-0, 170), senior Fletcher Brown (5-11, 180) and senior Cameron Behr (6-3, 180) are all challenging for jobs. Axelrood led last year’s squad with 14 catches for 149 yards and two TDs, and both he and Bertrand will again start in the defensive secondary, and Ross is also a returning starter at cornerback.

Another defensive back to keep an eye on is junior Luke Jensen. The 5-8, 160-pound junior was awarded the No. 27 team jersey in honor of the program’s late assistant coach, Steve King. “He’s such a selfless kid. He knows the history when it comes to Coach King, and he plays with a lot of heart and a lot of passion. He’ll wear that number well in Coach’s honor.”

At linebacker, the Kits will count on co-captain Charlie Gruner (5-11, 210), a senior, plus Kull and another senior, Nate Romero (6-3, 215). Romero is a hard hitter who ranked fourth on the team in total tackles last season.

Trey Dawkins will also start on the new-look defensive line that should include one of the most improved players in the program, junior Collin Olla-Chatman (6-0, 240), plus senior Eduardo Baez (6-4, 300) and junior Troy Gallimore (6-1, 215). Junior Danny White (6-2, 190) could also turn out to be an impact player up front.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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