It’s got nothing to do with his political beliefs or immigration, but Mike Burzawa doesn’t want to build just one wall in Evanston — he wants to build TWO.
The Evanston head football coach is referring to the fact that he knows that it’s what’s up front that counts for the Wildkits in the offensive and defensive lines that will help determine whether ETHS can qualify for the Illinois High School Association Class 8A postseason playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
Coming off their third straight 6-4 season, the Wildkits will open the 2018 campaign on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Lazier Field against a new opponent, Wheaton North.
“If the wall isn’t strong on both sides of the ball, the back half doesn’t mean anything,” said Burzawa. “The offensive and defensive lines are the foundation for the success of any football team. This is probably the most challenging schedule we’ve played since back in the 1990s and our theme on our T-shirts this year is Come 2 Work each and every day. We need to be locked in mentally and physically, and it starts with those guys in the offensive and defensive lines.
“We still have guys competing at some of the spots and we’re hoping to develop some more depth on both sides of the ball. Our goal, like every year, is to bring back the glory days of Evanston football.”
Three starters in the offensive line — center Sawyer Brown (5-foot-9, 230 pounds), right tackle Izzy Lobin (6-4, 270) and left tackle Egan Schliesmann (5-9, 230) — are returning from a unit that was dominant over the second half of last season. Joining those three seniors as starters are junior Quentin Ivory (6-4, 350) and senior Charlie Martell (5-11, 185).
Evanston’s effort to build a “wall” on the offensive side of the ball found Martell in an unusual spot. A combination lineback/fullback type coming up through the lower levels of the program, he saw an opportunity to get on the field and worked to nail down a starting job at a new position.
“He may be a bit undersized, but he put the team first because he knew we needed a 5th offensive lineman,” Burzawa praised. “He won the competition and he earned that spot.”
Veterans Troy Gallimore (6-1, 235), Collin Olla-Chatman (6-0, 240) and Danny White (6-3, 205) are the familiar faces returning in the defensive line.
There’s plenty for Burzawa to like about his team’s chances this fall, including three 3-year starters in the defensive backfield and a potential Division I running back in junior Quadre Nicholson. But what does he like most about what he saw in training camp? The camaraderie and working relationship that continues to develop between the senior and junior classes.
Entering his 23rd season coaching high school football, Burzawa believes that team chemistry and leadership are just as important as blocking and tackling.
“We have about 40 seniors this year and I really love how committed they’ve all been to the program,” he said. “They’ve all bought into the idea of ‘Team First’ and they’ve all brought a positive attitude every day. I’ve probably pushed them harder than any team I’ve coached here and they’ve really responded.
“They’ve held themselves accountable — the coaches don’t have to — and it’s the seniors who are running things and the juniors are buying into it. The way the chemistry has developed between them is really big for us.”
One of those leadership roles will fall to the new starting quarterback, senior Ben Tarpey, who replaces two-year starter Drew Dawkins. Tarpey, a 6-2, 185-pound senior, brings a different skill set than Dawkins did but impressed the coaching staff with his high football IQ and accurate passing during summer and preseason workouts. He completed 7 of 14 passes for 96 yards and 2 touchdowns as Dawkins’ backup last fall.
The Wildkits have had just a handful of junior team captains since Burzawa took over the program, but Nicholson (6-0, 185) will take on that challenge after leading Evanston’s rushing attack with 656 yards on 98 carries a year ago. He’s already received scholarship offers from some mid-major colleges and also is on the recruiting radar of several Big 10 schools.
“He’s only the fourth junior voted as a team captain since I came here,” said the head coach. “Quadre comes to work every day. I have to pull him off the field so some of the guys on the scout team can get some reps, too.
“His vision and his cutback ability are special, and he’s developed the strength and the speed and the toughness he needs to finish off runs. He’s becoming a man out there at a very quick rate. This is his time.”
Also sharing the ball carrying duties will be seniors Malik Ross (5-9, 170) and Cion Miller-Smith (5-6, 170).
Senior Mike Axelrood (6-3, 195) might be the best two-way player in the Central Suburban League South division this fall and is entering his third season as a varsity starter. He led the Wildkits in receptions (28) and TD catches (9), added two interceptions and ranked third on the team in tackles from his safety slot as a junior.
Other top receiving targets figure to be senior Gerrad Lamour (5-10, 165), senior Devontae Hillman (6-3, 165), senior Thomas Neumann (6-4, 155) and sophomore Zach Myers (6-5, 225).
Axelrood, Ross and senior Trenton Bertrand (5-8, 160) are all 3-year starters in the secondary and that experience could weigh heavily in Evanston’s favor with proliferation of spread offenses now on the high school level. Also battling for playing time at cornerback is senior Dylan Holt (5-10, 160), while Luke Jensen (5-9, 175) and Shawn Johnson (6-0, 180) are also in the mix at safety.
Linebackers Amir Abdullah (6-3, 195) and Quintrell Gary (5-11, 215) are two of the most intriguing talents on the roster and could provide playmaking ability that will help stop the run. Neither played much as a junior.
“We finally found out the things that Amir could do well and for him, it all started with his off-season commitment in the weight room,” Burzawa pointed out. “He punched the clock, lifted and did what he needed to do in the spring and in the summer. He was ranked right near the top at an Adidas combine that he went to, and I love what I’m seeing from him so far. He can be scary.
“Quintrell’s growth over the last four years as a person and as a player has been great to see. He was a backup last year, but he’ll be a prime time player for us this year.”
Another senior, Ezra Yang, will handle the kicking chores after averaging 28.5 yards as a punter last year.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.