Features | Friday Night Drive

Wheaton North leaning on experienced O-line as it retools after state title run

Niko Gamauf, right, and Eli Cook hold back defensive end Anderson Fitzpatrick, middle, during practice at Wheaton North on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

Question marks and concerns are everywhere for Wheaton North’s football team.

Graduation hit the defending Class 7A state champions particularly hard on both sides of the ball. The biggest void is the quarterback spot after the graduation of Mark Forcucci.

Still, Wheaton North football coach Joe Wardynski can point to his offensive line as a source of experience, strength and stability. Wardynski has yet to name a starting quarterback – junior Max Howser or athletic senior Tyler O’Connor are the top two candidates – but he’s content with his returnees on the offensive line.

“I think, out of all of the positional groups, that the one with the most experience is the offensive line,” Wardynski said. “They’re jelling, working hard and communicating well. They’re doing a good job of coming off the ball and early on with a new quarterback, we will lean on the running game until we get more snaps under our belts. Either way, our quarterback can get confidence if we get our run game going because of our offensive line.”

The Falcons (13-1 in 2021) have strength and experience on the left side of the offensive line with left tackle Nathaniel Stevens and left guard Caleb Varney. The two seniors gained valuable experience starting last season, helping stabilize the line to protect Fortucci and open up holes for the run game. Senior center Eli Cook, senior right guard Ethan Blum and junior Matt Rambasek round out the line, while highly recruited Ross Dansdill and Joe Barna form an athletic duo at tight end.

“Nathaniel is a good-sized kid with a mean streak and is very coachable,” Wardynski said. “He’s improved his footwork. Caleb is a pretty savvy kid. He understands fronts and probably technique-wise is as good as we have. Eli is a good athlete, just a strong kid and moves really well and is a mild-mannered kid who can flip a switch and get after people.

“Ethan Blum has had the best camp of all our guys, and Matt played well for us in the playoffs. He’s got a nasty streak to him and should be a solid piece for us. Ross is physical with good hands, and Joe Barna is one of the best overall athletes on the team. He’s a hidden gem right now. He runs well and has good hands.”

Varney, a second-year starter, said he’s adapted to his new role as a leader on the offensive line.

“I feel very confident, not only in myself, but the guys next to me,” Varney said. “Everyone else is stepping up and putting in the work on and off the field. Eli is back and already showing trust and good communication. Matt is showing a lot of improvement and potential. Ethan is moving better. The returnees, me and Nathaniel, have to really step up and point out things for the other guys not as experienced as us. We plan on dominating things and communication is important.”

Cook is healthy after dealing with a fractured thumb that caused him to miss the first month of last season. He underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, but he was cleared to practice last week.

“It feels good to be able to get back into things,” Cook said. “So far things have been going well. I’ve been picking up things really well. I want to keep growing and learning my assignments. Our O-line has been clicking well and is really solid. Each guy in their spot is on top of things. We’ve had a lot of intense practices and are looking well.”

Quarterback Tyler O'Connor, left, talks to quarterback Max Howser during practice at Wheaton North on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

Wardynski said he’s not named a starting quarterback for the opener against Downers Grove South on Aug. 26.

“Max Howser is doing fine,” Wardynski said. “He loves the game, working hard at it. He gives us a chance to be successful, got a good arm, working on pre-snap stuff and making good decisions. We compare him to Forcucci when he was a 10th grader, a year behind but he shows some of the same skills set, just not as dynamic of a runner. He’s good enough to extend plays. He’s a lacrosse player, moves his feet well, got some of the intangibles, but a work in progress.

“Tyler will start on defense for us, but can do other things offensively, from carrying the ball, playing in slot. We’re trying to weigh whether we put him under center and be an athlete for us or we can play Howser and use Tyler in other ways offensively. Tyler does not quite have as good an arm, but when a play breaks down, he can make things happen.”

Varney said the Falcons are intent on building off last season’s historic season, the fourth title in program history.

“I’m super excited for this season,” Varney said. “We play in a tough conference. The DuKane Conference is a big step up in competition. I’m looking forward to every single game, from Batavia to Glenbard North, Wheaton Warrenville South and St. Charles North. I want to beat everyone again, especially Batavia.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed left guard Caleb Varney’s remarks to one of his teammates.