Analysis | Friday Night Drive

2022 season preview: Scouting the Big Northern Conference

Genoa-Kingston's Brody Engel runs the ball during their IHSA Class Class 4A football playoff quarterfinal game at Joliet Memorial Stadium on Saturday,Nov. 13, 2021.

Byron

2021 record: 14-0

Coach: Jeff Boyer

Worth noting: After their perfect run to a 3A title last year, there are some holes to fill for the Tigers. A lot of offense production is gone, though Braden Smith returns for his third year starting at quarterback. Tyler Reed, a senior, has also been starting since his sophomore year on both lines but missed last year due to an injury. Jake Kahn started on both lines last year. And while not a starter, Kye Aken ran for 363 yards and four touchdowns and returns this year. Jacob Ross started a freshman last year and is also back at linebacker. Boyer said expectations are very high for the program as they are every year, and the players have been working hard throughout the summer and early fall camp.

Dixon

2021 record: 6-4

Coach: Jared Shaner

Worth noting: The Dukes bring back starters at quarterback (junior Tyler Shaner), running back (senior Rylan Ramsdell) and receiver (senior Jath St. Pier) this season, which will help lessen the blow of losing a strong senior class that included leading rusher Zavion Johnson and top receivers Mason Randick and Jacob Gusse. Shaner started for the first half of the season after incumbent starter Jacob Gaither broke his finger in the week leading up to the season opener, and ended up leading Dixon with 906 yards and nine TDs on 73-for-115 passing, with only three interceptions. Ramsdell was the Dukes’ second-leading rusher behind Johnson, finishing with 577 yards and six TDs on 82 rushes; Shaner was the third-leading rusher with 494 yards and fove TDs on 84 carries. St. Pier was Dixon’s third-leading receiver with 20 catches for 312 yards and three TDs. The Dukes boast some size up front on offense, and always seem to find linebackers with a nose for the ball in their defensive scheme. Dixon scored 35 points or more six times last season, and scored 26 points in two more games, while allowing 20 points or fewer in six games to earn their school-record seventh straight playoff berth.

Genoa-Kingston

2021 record: 10-2

Coach: Cameron Davekos

Worth noting: The Cogs have made six straight playoff appearances and haven’t lost more than two regular-season games since 2015. Last year the team reached the 4A quarterfinals for the first time since 2016. While there were some losses, including all-state linebacker Colin Nesler and fullback Chase Engel, the Cogs also have plenty back. Ethan Wilnau ran for 673 yards and had a knack for forcing turnovers at both linebacker and defensive back. Brody Engel had 86 tackles and four interceptions last year, including one for a touchdown. And Nolan Perry played both linebacker and quarterback, notching 63 tackles and 14 for a loss.

North Boone

2021 record: 5-5

Coach: Ryan Kelley

Worth noting: On a team with just four seniors, the performance of Chandler Alderman will be key. He’s an NCAA Division I athlete, committing to Middle Tennessee State next year to play baseball as a lefty pitcher. Wide receiver and running back Chris Doetch will help replace the production of brother Will Doetch from last year. With six offensive and five defensive starters back, Kelley said the returning players will need to reach their potential while the young players will need to step up.

Oregon

2021 record: 2-7

Coach: Broc Kundert

Worth noting: The Hawks look to continue their recent rebuild under a new head coach in Kundert, a 2007 Freeport High School grad and Freeport Aquin head coach the past four years. Because of his background, Kundert will look for more balance from the traditional run-heavy attack Oregon has used for years. The Hawks will look to use a committee approach to replace Daniel Dominguez, who led the way with 953 yards and eight touchdowns on 182 rushes last season. Look for senior Gabe Eckerd and junior Trevor Burkhart to handle a lot of that load. Oregon has seen the number of players in the program grow this offseason, up to 75 from the usual number in the 50s. Seniors Evan Flaharty (6-foot-2, 285 pounds) and Jon Alaniz (6-0, 250) will anchor the line, while sophomore Josh Crandall (6-3, 190) will get a lot of snaps at the end position. The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs since 2014, after making the postseason in eight of the nine seasons prior to that.

Rock Falls

2021 record: 1-8

Coach: Kevin Parker

Worth noting: Parker is back on the sideline after missing the second half of last season following the death of his son, Brock, in a car accident. Brock, a senior on the team last year, was injured in the crash on Sept. 17, hours before the Rockets’ Week 4 game; he died a week later. Rock Falls loses its biggest weapon from a year ago in Booker Cross, a unanimous first-team all-BNC performer who finished ninth in the Sauk Valley area with 881 rushing yards and 10 TDs on 119 carries; he also caught six passes for 121 yards and two TDs, and was a dangerous returner in addition to his 50 tackles and two interceptions on defense. Seniors Ryan McCord and Aidan Kobbeman will play roles as the top running backs and linebackers for Rock Falls, and will lead a young team that is growing in numbers. Rock Falls has made the playoffs just twice in program history, in 1985 and 1992; the Rockets’ lone playoff win came in 1992. They are looking to avoid their fourth straight 1-8 season.

Rockford Christian

2021 record: 0-9

Coach: Terry Gulley

Worth noting: The team had made three straight playoff appearances prior to the pandemic, but struggled in its first year back in the BNC last year. The Royal Lions opened last season with a 50-0 loss to a Rock Falls team that finished the year 1-8. Junior Keon Leach threw for almost 1,000 yards and is back under center for the club.

Rockford Lutheran

2021 record: 4-5

Coach: Jeff Luedke

Worth noting: Luedke is the fourth head coach for the Crusaders since coach Bruce Bazsali left the program after the 2016 season. Luedke was an assistant for Bazsali on a team that went 50-9 from 2012-2016 but hasn’t had a winning record since. With 29 players in the program, the team is mostly sophomores and has spent the summer working through “a lot of issues,” according to Luedke, including trust, expectations, leadership, and terminology. They played more than 20 7-on-7 games this summer but Luedke said he’s not sure how the team will respond to “real football.” Luedke said he’s been impressed with Jack Behmer at outside linebacker, and Kyng Hughes will operate at quarterback.

Stillman Valley

2021 record: 8-3

Coach: Mike Lalor

Worth noting: The Cardinals have made three straight postseason berths, reaching the second round each time and look to keep up that run this year after missing the playoffs from 2014-17 – and that drought came on the heels of a 3A title in 2013. They’ll get a big test right off the bat with defending BNC and state champion Byron in Week 1. Jory Spain, a 6-1, 205-pound running back is back to key the offense this year and Kale Rauman is expected to start at quarterback for the second straight year.

Winnebago

2021 record: 3-6

Coach: Mark Helm

Worth noting: Helm said the team has hit the weight room hard this summer. He said his team has some solid young players that were a part of that group that leaves him very optimistic about the next couple years in the program. Junior Logan Olson is one of those players who hit the weight room hard. He started as a sophomore and is back at running back and linebacker. Senior Alec Weavel returns at quarterback, and Andrew Penticoff and Will Speltz are both senior tight ends that make great targets for Weavel. Kendrick Meador and Braden Naill return on the offensive line of their senior years.

Byron's quarterback Braden Smith, (3) runs with the ball as Tolono's Austin Langendorf, (82) defends during the Class 3A state title game at Huskie Stadium on Friday Nov. 26, 2021 in Dekalb.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

  • Chris Doetch, jr., WR/SS/RB, North Boone: He ran for 583 yards on 67 carries, plus had 32 receptions for 459 yards last year as a sophomore. With the graduation of his brother, Will, his role should grow much bigger as should his numbers and impact.
  • Will Speltz, sr., LB/TE, Winnebago: Not only is he an impact player on both sides of the ball – especially on offense where he can both catch and block well – he has become a team leader, with players responding to him according to coach Mark Helm.
  • Braden Smith, sr., QB/FS, Byron: The Tigers definitely ran first on their way to a state championship last year, but Smith is back having thrown for 626 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also brings his experience back in the secondary as well.
  • Brody Engel sr., RB/S, Genoa-Kingston: While he does play wingback in the Cogs’ wing-T offense, Engel brings a lot of value to the team at safety. He’s a vocal leader on the field, started all of last year and uses that experience to hold other players accountable, coach Cam Davekos said.
  • Tyler Shaner, jr., QB, Dixon: A part-time starter as an injury replacement year, Shaner takes over full time this year. He put up gaudy numbers, completing 73 of 115 passes for 906 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.

SCHEDULES

ByronDixonGenoa-KingstonNorth BooneOregon
Week 1@ Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Aug. 26@ Oregon; 7 p.m., Aug. 26vs. Winnebago; 7 p.m., Aug. 26vs. Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Aug. 26vs. Dixon; 7 p.m., Aug. 26
Week 2@ Winnebago; 7 p.m., Sept. 2@ North Boone; 7 p.m., Sept. 2@ Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Sept. 2vs. Dixon; 7 p.m., Sept. 2@ Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Sept. 2
Week 3vs. Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Sept. 9vs. Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Sept. 9vs. North Boone; 7 p.m., Sept. 9@ Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Sept. 9@ Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Sept. 9
Week 4@ Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Sept. 16vs. Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Sept. 16vs. Byron; 7 p.m., Sept. 16@ Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Sept. 16vs. Winnebago; 7 p.m., Sept. 16
Week 5@ North Boone; 7 p.m., Sept. 23@ Winnebago; 7 p.m., Sept. 23@ Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Sept. 23vs. Byron; 7 p.m., Sept. 23@ Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Sept. 23
Week 6vs. Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Sept. 30vs. Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Sept. 30@ Oregon; 7 p.m.; Sept. 30@ Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Sept. 30vs. Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Sept. 30
Week 7@ Oregon; 7 p.m., Oct. 7@ Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Oct. 7vs. Dixon; 7 p.m., Oct. 7vs. Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Oct. 7vs. Byron; 7 p.m., Oct. 7
Week 8vs. Dixon; 7 p.m., Oct. 14@ Byron; 7 p.m., Oct. 14vs. Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Oct. 14vs. Winnebago; 7 p.m., Oct. 14@ Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Oct. 14
Week 9vs. Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Oct. 21vs. Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Oct. 21@ Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Oct. 21@ Oregon; 7 p.m., Oct. 21vs. North Boone; 7 p.m., Oct. 21
Rock FallsRockford ChristianRockford LutheranStillman ValleyWinnebago
Week 1@ Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Aug. 26vs. Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Aug. 26@ North Boone; 7 p.m., Aug. 26vs. Byron; 7 p.m., Aug. 26@ Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Aug. 26
Week 2vs. Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Sept. 2vs. Oregon; 7 p.m., Sept. 2vs. Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Sept. 2@ Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Sept. 2vs. Byron; 7 p.m., Sept. 2
Week 3vs. Winnebago, 7 p.m., Sept. 9@ Dixon; 7 p.m., Sept. 9@ Byron; 7 p.m., Sept. 9vs. Oregon; 7 p.m., Sept. 9@ Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Sept. 9
Week 4@ Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Sept. 16vs. North Boone; 7 p.m., Sept. 16vs. Rock Falls; 7 p.m., Sept. 16@ Dixon; 7 p.m., Sept. 16@ Oregon; 7 p.m., Sept. 16
Week 5vs. Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Sept. 23vs. Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Sept. 23vs. Oregon; 7 p.m., Sept. 23,@ Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Sept. 23vs. Dixon; 7 p.m., Sept. 23
Week 6@ Byron; 7 p.m., Sept. 30@ Winnebago; 7 p.m., Sept. 30@ Dixon; 7 p.m., Sept. 30vs. North Boone; 7 p.m., Sept. 30vs. Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Sept. 30
Week 7@ North Boone; 7 p.m., Oct. 7vs. Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Oct. 7@ Rockford Christian; 7 p.m., Oct. 7vs. Winnebago; 7 p.m., Oct. 7@ Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Oct. 7
Week 8vs .Oregon; 7 p.m., Oct. 14@ Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Oct. 14vs. Stillman Valley; 7 p.m., Oct. 14@ Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Oct. 14@ North Boone; 7 p.m., Oct. 14
Week 9@ Dixon; 7 p.m., Oct. 21@ Byron; 7 p.m., Oct. 21@ Winnebago; 7 p.m., Oct. 21vs. Genoa-Kingston; 7 p.m., Oct. 21vs. Rockford Lutheran; 7 p.m., Oct. 21

FIVE CAN’T MISS MATCHUPS

Week 1 – Rockford Lutheran at North Boone: It’s weird for a season-opening matchup to have playoff implications, but that’s what ended up happening last year as Lutheran went 4-5 and North Boone 5-4 in the regular season, the difference the Vikings’ 35-0 win in Week 1.

Week 4 – Genoa-Kingston at Byron: Last year, the Tigers played just three games decided by four or less points en route to winning the 3A state title - the quarterfinal against Reed-Custer (28-24), the semifinal against IC Catholic (15-14) and a regular-season game against the Cogs (7-3). Just as it was last year, this game, even in the first half of the year, is likely to decide the conference champ.

Week 4 – Stillman Valley at Dixon: The Cardinals schedule is definitely a roller coaster in the first three weeks, opening with Byron, then facing Oregon and Rock Falls teams that combined for three wins. Dixon, meanwhile, opens with three teams they beat last year by a combined 142-7. Stillman Valley got the 20-14 win last year, and this year’s game should be another great measuring stick for both.

Week 8 – Dixon at Byron: No one scored more points against the Tigers than the Dukes last year, but Byron still prevailed, 52-35. If things have fallen right for Dixon this year, this could be its chance to get atop the BNC - or a chance for the Tigers to show league dominance for a second straight year.

Week 9 – Genoa-Kingston at Stillman Valley: Both teams should have playoff spots wrapped by this meeting, which G-K won 35-0 last year. But this game could end up having not only playoff positioning on the line, but BNC title implications for one or both squads.

STEVE SOUCIE’S PREDICTED FINISH

TeamRecord
Byron9-0
Stillman Valley8-1
Genoa-Kingston7-2
North Boone6-3
Dixon5-4
Winnebago4-5
Oregon3-6
Rockford Lutheran2-7
Rockford Christian1-8
Rock Falls0-9

* Ty Reynolds contributed to this report.