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  • FOOTBALL: Hill welcomes added pressure in second season with Indians

    Doug Daniels
    Monday, August 22, 2016

    2015 would be a significant year for the Du Quoin High School football program for several reasons. It was the first year since 1988 someone other than Hall-of-Famer Al Martin would coach the Indians. Martin’s successor was a former Du Quoin quarterback, A.J. Hill, who was just 25 years old when last season began. Also, the Indians were coming off a stretch of four seasons where they missed the playoffs three times after a stretch of 27 straight postseason appearances.
    Hill knew the type of expectations that would be placed upon him when he took the position, and in his first season as a high school head coach, he led Du Quoin back into the playoffs with a 5-4 regular season record and a Southern Illinois River-to-River Conference Mississippi Division championship. The Indians were routed perennial powerhouse Central Catholic in Bloomington in round one, but despite the tough ending to the year, Hill was happy with what the team accomplished.
    “You always want to win more games than you did when you end up 5-5,” said Hill, “but winning the conference championship with it coming down to the last game against Nashville and our kids got up for it and performed in a pressure situation, and for the kids to get up there (in Bloomington) just to experience running on out the field on a Saturday afternoon, I think that’s special for this group. Especially since we played a lot of younger kids last year.”
    A lot of those younger kids were juniors in 2015 and are back in the fold this fall. Leading that group are four returning all-conference team selections - fullback and linebacker Chandler Stevenson, fullback and linebacker Bryce Clarry, tight end and defensive end Devin Jones, and running back and defensive back Zayne Fornear.
    “Those are names I anticipate hearing a lot this year. As a whole this group of seniors is a great group, specifically a few of them who will be three-year starters, four or five guys that have played a lot of football and seen a lot of things thrown at them. As a coach you get excited when you’ve got guys that have played a lot of games, played a lot of different teams.”
    “We feel like this is a good group of seniors and we’re happy to have them. They’ve played a lot of football. A lot of them got forced into some action as sophomores. We’v been working on developing them in the offseason, making them work hard in the offseason and work together, showing them this summer that it’s their team this year, their last go-round, and they’ve got to take ownership of this team and lead from within. I think that was the biggest thing we had to adjust, getting some quality leadership and showing them what that looks like.”
    Many juniors had strong seasons, but one in particular put together one of the best offensive seasons in Indian history. More than once carrying the ball 30+ times on a Friday night, Fornear finished with an unofficial total of 1450 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in 10 games. Doubters kept waiting for Fornear to wear down as the season progressed, but he never did, no matter how many times he was handed the football.
    “We need to be more conscious of Zayne’s carries this year,” Hill admitted. “That’s something we started to address a little bit last year, but when you have a back that runs like Zayne does sometimes it’s hard to get him off the field because you don’t like what you give up when he’s off the field. We’ll do a better job this year of getting him blows at certain points of the game just to take some of that wear and tear off of him. He’s a great kid. I said it last year but if you asked Zayne to carry it 50 times a game, he’d carry it 50 times a game and wouldn’t say a word.”
    Another key starter returns as Caleb Vogel will enter his second year as the Indians’ varsity quarterback. His numbers as a junior aren’t eye-popping, but glimpses of Vogel’s abilities showed up more and more as the season progressed, and he was solid in back-to-back wins over Anna-Jonesboro and Nashville to wrap up the conference crown.
    “Caleb’s made some good strides this offseason,” Hill said. “Number one, he’s put on a little weight and gotten a little stronger. I think he feels way more confident with his control of the ball and where he could put the ball.”
    “More so than that, even thinking back to when I was a player, that first year of starting everything is new. You haven’t played at that speed before. A lot of things are coming at you and you’re in control of the whole offense. Just having that year under his belt and a pretty good year, a conference championship and a trip to the playoffs wouldn’t have been possible without Caleb at quarterback. In the offseason we pushed him to be more of a vocal leader, to take care of things mentally, be in charge of things, and he’s really accepted that role well.”
    The talk is about who all is back for Du Quoin, but several talented seniors graduated and the Indians’ co-op with Elverado High School came to an end, leaving several spots up for grabs in the lineup.
    “There are a few positions there, a couple on the defensive line,” Hill said. “We’re going to have to have some guys step up. Outside linebacker, we graduated two kids, so we’ve got a couple new faces there - Donovan Cole and Ashton Smith have done a great job this offseason along with Kyle Robinson, Shamar Adams, Westly Milam. Those guys have stepped up and are learning the position still, but they’re doing a good job of handling it.”
    “On the offensive line we’re replacing an all-conference center (Charlie Gaines), we’re replacing an all-conference tackle (Alec Valerius). We’ve got some guys we like what we’re seeing out of, they’ve got to keep developing. Really we feel confident about six or seven guys up front on the offense. Receivers, Jordan Edwards had a really solid year last year for as much as we threw the ball. Tevin Lee has had a great offseason, got himself in shape a little bit. He’s made some nice catches and has really bought in to what we’re doing. We’ve got four or five guys we feel confident in putting out there to catch the ball.”
    A group perceived to be as talented as this one has had Du Quoin waiting for 2016 to kick off ever since they tossed their clothes from the Bloomington game in the dryer. As if the raised expectations weren’t enough, Hill’s own brother, also a former Indian quarterback - Nick Hill, laid a challenge out for little brother after he was named the new head football coach at Southern Illinois University back in December.
    When asked about the possibility of A.J. joining him on his coaching staff some day, Nick Hill answered: "That's definitely a dream of ours, to coach (together) one day," said Hill. "He's really happy with what he's doing, and I can tell that when I talk to him, when I see him. Maybe one day down the road I'll try to steal him but he needs to get another state championship for Du Quoin, I'm putting the pressure on him for that."
    A.J.’s response?
    “That’s not surprising to me, Nick’s kind of always laid the challenges out there for me my whole life,” A.J. Hill said. “He’s been a good role model for me. I like the pressure. As a player, we kind of always expected that growing up and playing in the era that I played during here in Du Quoin. It was kind of the expectation every year, and my mindset hasn’t changed. (Nick and I) both played in a state championship and lost, so to win one is definitely the goal. I know Du Quoin would get behind us, we could use a deep playoff run.”
    The Indians start the 2016 varsity football season on home turf at Van Metre Field against Metropolis (Massac County) on August 26 at 7:00 p.m. They’ll be tested thoroughly the first four weeks of the season, facing four opponents whose enrollment is at least 180 students higher than Du Quoin’s 377 according to the IHSA’s classification.


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