Seven on seven competitions during the summer sessions for high school football aren’t considered “real” football.

After all, there’s no blocking, no tackling, no pass rush to put  pressure on quarterback hopefuls and no other responsibilities for erstwhile receivers than just catching the football.

But the benefits of learning complex systems — and how to stop them — are certainly real. Just ask Evanston defensive backs Mike Axelrood, Malik Ross and Trenton Bertrand, who are returning starters for a secondary unit that figures to be a strength for the Wildkits for the upcoming 2017 season.

Evanston’s attempt to reach the Illinois High School Association Class 8A state playoffs again officially starts on August 7, when all teams open fall practice. But even though the pitch-and-catch part of 7-on-7 clearly benefits offensive players, the summer school aspect of the competition pays off for defensive players, too.

Axelrood, Ross and Bertrand were all promoted to the varsity as sophomores and participated with the varsity in 7-on-7 competitions last summer to help prepare for the jump from freshman football to playing against the big boys. The Wildkits usually play in about two dozen 7-on-7 games during the summer, including the annual Central Suburban League invitational and a trip to Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington .

Axelrood, who thrived to the point of earning all-Central Suburban League South division honors last year,  missed playing this summer because he’s still recovering from surgery for a torn ACL in his knee. But even watching from the sidelines, the junior-to-be noticed the significant progress made by teammates Ross and Bertrand.

“I thought the progress the secondary showed this summer was great,” Axelrood said. “You could see they were picking up the basic stuff a lot quicker now that we’ve all got a year under our belts. You could see them making plays and getting more confident, and that was really great to see.

“Playing 7 on 7 last summer really helped me a lot last year. Sure, it’s touch football, but it really helps you get acclimated to the coverages you need to learn and it does somewhat simulate a real game. It also helps you bond with your teammates back there, and it helps the communication aspect of it grow for everyone.”

Along with soph-to-be Quadre Nicholson, junior Garrad Lamour and senior Cameron Williams, the secondary offers the most experience on a defensive unit that is rebuilding after last year’s 6-4 finish. Only one lineman — two-way standout Trey Dawkins — and linebackers Nate Romero and Charlie Gruner are back as returning starters.

As a team in 2016, the Wildkits allowed just 12 touchdown passes in 10 games — a solid effort considering the proliferation of spread attacks currently on the high school level — and yielded a 53 percent completion rate. ETHS head coach Mike Burzawa expects improvement in those areas, especially if Axelrood can return to the form he showed at safety a year ago.

After last week’s trip to Illinois Wesleyan, the veteran coach was encouraged by the steps he saw his team take on both offense and defense.
“We were in more competitive situations down there, against teams like Downers Grove South, Immaculate Conception, Nazareth, Chatham-Glenwood, and Triad and we were up against everything from a Wing-T offense to a pure spread,” the coach noted. “We still need to improve on understanding the game, and the situational awareness on both sides of the ball, but overall I was pleased.

“7 on 7 competitions really help the defense a lot. It helps you learn the coverage checks and you see a different offense every 30 minutes or so. You’re able to play your base coverages but you also learn who can cover in man-to-man situations. You also see who can compete.

“We’re trying to develop more depth in the secondary because we’ll need some of those guys on offense this year, too. Those guys back there are the soul of our defense. I thought the secondary developed and got stronger as the year went on last year, even though we kept things more ‘vanilla’ (less complex) because we were so young.  It was a learning curve for all of them, because on the varsity level you have to game-plan against the intricacies of the other team’s offense. That’s something you don’t do on the freshman team. I thought they did an above average job as sophomores.”

One team goal is to force more turnovers this fall. The Wildkits only intercepted three passes last year — Axelrood had one — and a more confident group of defenders is hoping to add to those numbers this time around.

“We got a whole bunch of picks this summer, and I had five myself,” Ross said. ”Things are coming a lot more natural to us now, and I know we’ll get a lot more picks when the season starts. I felt like we all had a really good summer and our team chemistry is a lot better now, too.

“There was a lot to learn when I came up last summer and the coaches expect you to learn it quicker. It was hard, but now I’ve got a better understanding of things and I feel like I’m ahead of the juniors who are coming up now from the sophomore team. Last year playing defense was new to me and I was only about 125 pounds. The (varsity) guys were bigger than me, but I feared no one. It was really more about confidence than anything else.

“I didn’t want to look like a fool out there, didn’t want to mess up in front of all those people. This year I’ve got the confidence to get the job done.”
Bertrand cracked the starting lineup for the 2016 Homecoming game and never yielded his spot. Once he adjusted to the speed of varsity competition, he was as reliable as any senior.

“I never thought I’d play varsity last year,” he pointed out. “As a freshman I was a quarterback on the B team and on defense all I did was follow receivers around and try to make sure they didn’t catch the ball. But there’s so much more to playing cornerback. We only ran one basic coverage as freshmen, so learning the (varsity) playbook was tough. But I’m a pretty quick learner.

“In the 7 on 7s you learn how to communicate with your teammates in critical situations. It’s a time for you to grow, so you won’t get stuck when practice starts. One difference is that varsity receivers are really aggressive coming off the line, and they’ll hand-fight you and do whatever it takes to get open. It’s not that way on the lower levels.”

Bertrand and the others spent time in the weight room and watching tape this summer in an effort to improve their individual games.

“With Axe out, we were still flying around a lot back there and I thought our new free safety (Lamour) played extremely well,” he said. “This summer I watched my own tapes every day and worked out against college receivers. I saved and re-read all the evaluations Coach Woody (secondary coach Keith Woodson) gave me from last year, too. I can see the progress I’ve made — but I also saw things I still need to work on.

“The communication is definitely there between all of us. To me, the game feels more slowed down now. We’ve got most of our technique down and we should definitely get a lot more picks on defense. Hopefully, this year the whole secondary will make all-conference.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director at ETHS.

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

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