It wasn’t that long ago that Evanston head football coach Mike Burzawa was chasing 6th grader Sean Cruz off the practice field during the summer months while preparing his varsity team for the upcoming season.
Now, Burzawa is poised to hand over the reins of the Wildkit offense to a sophomore quarterback for the first time in ETHS history.
Cruz has emerged as the heir apparent to call the signals after taking about 90 percent of the snaps in 7-on-7 competition that concluded on Wednesday for the Kits. Cruz, at 15 years old, would be the first player to start the season at quarterback as a sophomore at ETHS in the 70-plus seasons since the T-formation came into play at the high school level.
Bryan Kelly moved up to the varsity at the end of the 2001 season, in time to engineer a 14-13 upset of New Trier in the rain in Week 8, and went on to set school records for touchdown passes in a game (4) and in a season (27) in the next two years. Kelly got his opportunity when the first and second-string varsity quarterbacks, Stanley Antoine and Adam Davis, were sidelined with injuries.
Cruz? If he’s the starter for the season opener against Saint Patrick, it will be because he earned the job.
“I remember when I was in 6th and 7th grade and I’d stop by the (varsity) field to check out their practices,” said Cruz. “I’ve been playing quarterback since I was 7 years old. But when the coaches (Burzawa and quarterback coach Ryan Healy) talked to me over the winter about playing with the varsity, I didn’t expect it.
“Originally, I was supposed to move up to the sophomore team last year as a freshman but I was OK with staying down. But now the coaches want me in the varsity practices so I could have the opportunity to work with Coach Healy and get better.”
How raw is Cruz? He missed an entire month of his freshman season with a leg injury and had never participated in 7-on-7 passing competition until this summer.
Both Burzawa and Healy, however, are confident that the 5-foot-11, 170-pound sophomore has the tools to overcome his inexperience.
“I remember when I used to yell at him to get off the field so we could get the varsity practice started,” Burzawa recalled. “I’m not saying that anyone is a starter --- not yet. But Sean’s had a very good off-season and in the summer, I’d say the biggest thing for him was earning our trust. He’s been dependable so far and I think he’s the front-runner. It’s a big jump for him, but he’s strong physically and he can throw it. There’s a lot to be excited about.
“I’ve never had a sophomore start at quarterback before (including his tenure at a state championship-level program at now defunct Driscoll Catholic). Everything is a competition and things can change. But we want to play our best kids on the varsity, regardless of age, so it doesn’t faze me that Sean’s a sophomore. He’ll grow and develop, and we’ll take it one year at a time. It’s just a process to get where you want to be.”
And that process has already started for Cruz. But other factors besides his individual potential have come into play, too. Cruz’s brother DeVaughn Bell, a senior, was moved to quarterback on the sophomore team as more of an “athlete” at the position that year, and could still wind up calling the signals. But Bell has been the team’s MVP at defensive back and receiver this summer --- and he’s needed more in those spots than at QB.
Another QB hopeful, junior Jamari Jenkins, started for the sophomore squad in 2018, yet could line up at defensive end in the fall. The other quarterback in camp, junior Josh Heckler, only started playing organized football a year ago and is just as green as Cruz.
“I think the other guys are all rallying around Sean,” Burzawa pointed out. “It was difficult for DeVaughn at first, but he’s helping his brother out and he knows he’s going to be on the field a lot even if he doesn’t play quarterback. And Jamari’s the one who’s had the best attitude about it. I think he had his heart set on playing quarterback this year, but he’s a great defensive end, too, and he just has that team-first attitude we need. It’s nice to see just how selfless some of these kids can be.”
“The hardest part about moving from the freshmen to the varsity is probably trying to meet the coaches’ expectations,” Cruz said. “It will be hard for me to fill the shoes of guys like Drew Dawkins and Ben Tarpey. I’ll be taking on a huge challenge at a young age. Physically, it’s no problem, because I’ve been working out 4 or 5 times a week to get right. But it’s really nerve-wracking because there’s a lot to learn.
“I was very surprised when the coaches said I was moving up --- but I’m very confident in my self, too. I believe I can do it, the coaches believe I can do it and my family believes I can do it.”
Cruz completed approximately 60 percent of his passes in “touch football” competitions with no pass rush and no hitting over the past month. He was only intercepted 3 times in approximately 200 attempts in those games even though this was his first exposure to the 7-on-7 drills.
It was a new experience for the rookie to try to read varsity defenses and anticipate just what the other side would do.
“This summer was a huge learning lesson for me,” Cruz said. “It’s totally different from frosh football, because you have to learn to read coverages and throw it to the right place. A lot goes into the decision-making because you have to look at the defense and predict what they’re going to do. There’s a whole lot for me to learn, like whether they’re in man to man or zone, the position of the cornerbacks, the number of safeties they’re using, whether they’re in a Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3 or Cover 4.
“Then, after the ball is snapped, you have to look and find the holes.”
Healy, a former ETHS quarterback himself, threw the kitchen sink of strategy at Cruz during the summer months, not straying from a philosophy that has helped past Evanston QBs succeed just because of Cruz’s youth.
If anything, he upped the ante for Cruz.
“I remember that he didn’t have a very good game when we were at Maine South (in a shutout loss to Lane Tech, where he was just 1-of-8 passing), and I really let him have it (verbally),” Healy recalled. “I told him you’d better pick it up, or you’re going back to the sophomore team, just to see how he’d respond.
“I wanted to test him and that’s why I let him have it. I try to put maximum pressure on our quarterbacks early on, so Friday nights are that much easier for them when the season starts. When I let him have it like that, he didn’t put his head down. Instead he led us to 3 straight wins (with a total of 7 TD passes against Chicago Hubbard, Naperville Central and Glenbard West) with last second scores.
“He’s definitely getting better and he’s getting more comfortable out there. There’s a lot for any new quarterback to learn and it’s different when you’re playing against older and faster kids. We still don’t know if he can take a hit, either. But I think he’ll be fine. He throws the ball well on the run, and he’s quick and he’s smooth back there.
“I think his biggest strength is how well he listens. He’s starting to ask more questions, and I can tell he’s starting to figure things out. I’ve been kinda amazed at his poise, and he doesn’t hang his head when he makes a mistake. I think he’s got a real sense of the game and now we’re going to challenge him even more.”
Cruz said he’s eager to face that next challenge.
“I think so far the coaches have been surprised at how much I pay attention, and how much I love the game of football,” he said. “I like the pressure of playing quarterback and I think I perform that much better when I’m nervous.
“As a quarterback, you also have to be a leader. You’re not just out there to make yourself look good, you’re out there to make your teammates look good, too.”