By Chris Parker
Kickapoo football has high expectations this year thanks to a deep class of 28 seniors and a total of more than 140 players in the program this summer.
“I feel really good about our team. I really like our team. We have a bunch of great kids right now that are bought into our program that we are ready to turn loose,” Kickapoo head coach Nate Thomas said. “Right now I think we are sitting at close to 142 kids. It is just a big group. This is kind of the group we have been waiting for that we identified as freshmen that were going to be special.”
The first thing Kickapoo must do is replace quarterback Cross Elmquist, who threw for 1,378 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
“We have two guys that I think are going to step into a pretty good role for us. Both of them do two different things really well,” Thomas said.
Adam Miller brings a passing threat to the quarterback position. He was the junior varsity quarterback. Senior Boone Shevey is a two-year starter on defense at linebacker and is also in the mix at quarterback as more of a running threat.
The running game will also require some rebuilding, as no returning player reached 100 yards rushing last year.
Samias Pickett and Zay’Kwon Henderson will step up to varsity this year as sophomores. Chase Nelson will also see some snaps in the backfield. Kevin Ward could play both ways with time at safety and running back.
On the edges, Chandler Taylor returns as the team’s top receiver after he caught 28 balls for 385 yards and three touchdowns as a junior. Taylor earned second-team all-conference honors at kick returner last year.
Connor Fitzgerald is another returning starter at receiver. He had 12 catches for 150 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Zaide Lowery will see varsity snaps at receiver in his sophomore season.
The offensive line will be anchored by senior David Kwon. Kwon was named second-team all-conference on the offensive line last year.
“David is not real vocal. I am not sure in the four years that I have been around him that I have heard him say more than about 20 words. He is very quiet. He is a lunch pail show up every day and go to work (type). He is going to lead by example,” Thomas said.
Senior Cole Metheny gives Kickapoo another experienced, two-year starter to lean on. Zach Watts will also be a key factor on the offensive line.
“It (the offense) is going to look different. I think we found out very quickly how spoiled we were with Cross,” Thomas said. “Just like every year we want to be as close to 50-50 (pass-run) as possible. There were games this last year that forced us into throwing the ball more than we wanted. We want to be as balanced as we can be.”
Defensively, everything starts in the middle with senior linebackers Shevey and Garrett Perryman. Shevey was a second-team all-conference pick at linebacker in his junior season. He led the team with 37.5 total tackles last season. Perryman was third on the team with 35.
“(They are) two of the best kids we have in our program as far as driving our culture. They are two of our leaders on defense without a doubt. It all goes through them,” Thomas said. “(When they were) sophomores you are thinking you might be in trouble with as many starters we had that were sophomores. Those guys are seniors now and understand what it is going to take.”
Shevey is one of the top leaders on the team.
“He has one of those qualities you can’t coach. The kids follow him. As he goes, we go. He is one of the guys that works the hardest in the weight room conditioning to prepare himself to go both ways,” Thomas said.
Defensive tackle C.J. Anoa’i returns after earning second-team all-conference honors with 35.5 total tackles and 1.5 sacks last season.
“C.J. Anoa’i has made some huge strides this summer. He is up to about 6-foot-2 and pushing 280 (pounds). He has worked his tail off this summer,” Thomas said.
He will be joined be defensive ends Corey Choates, Sam Snider, Kaden Rea and Austin Post. That quartet will also be in the mix on offense at tight end.
The secondary will be anchored by returning starters in Ward and Sam Cybulski. Ward had a team-leading four interceptions last year. Pickett will see time at corner back in addition to his duties at running back.
Taylor will play find time all around the defense.
This year, Kickapoo will go as its seniors go.
“We have some leadership at the senior level, and I think that is who we are going to lean on across the board having 28 seniors,” Thomas said. “Those guys have been through the ringer, so we are going to lean on their leadership.”