Oak Park-River Forest quarterback Lloyd Yates will play at Northwestern next season. | J.Geil/For Sun-Times Media
There's a different vibe around Oak Park-River Forest football these days.
"We were joking the other day, my first year here when we played Glenbard West, we may have had a couple hundred people in the crowd and 75 percent were watching the band," fourth-year coach John Hoerster said.
"Last year we had 4,000 people when we played Glenbard West."
No wonder. On Hoerster's watch, the Huskies have gone from 3-6 in 2011 to 7-4 (their first winning season since 2006 and second since 1998) in 2012 to 9-2 last fall.
With Northwestern recruits Lloyd Yates and Adam Lemke-Bell leading the way, Oak Park — No. 18 in the Sun-Times preseason Super 25 — is looking for even bigger things this fall.
"My sophomore year, we started turning around," said Yates, who's a senior now. "We started winning lots of support. Faculty, community members, neighbors — they just wanted to talk football."
Yates, a two-star quarterback prospect, figures to provide plenty of fodder for conversation. A year ago, he passed for 1,958 yards and 20 touchdowns with just four interceptions, and also ran for 935 yards and 10 scores,
"He looks great," Hoerster said of the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder. "The biggest improvement he made over the offseason [came from] the work he put in in the weight room. We're going to be asking him to do quite a bit. His arm has gotten better, his speed has gotten better."
Yates, who's headed into his third year as a starter, should have time to throw thanks to a solid group of linemen. Leading that unit are Lemke-Bell (6-5, 285) and fellow senior Phil Berton (6-4, 250), who has Division I scholarship offers from Georgia State and South Dakota State and is being recruited by some Ivy League schools.
"We definitely have a much bigger and better line," Yates said.
At running back, Oak Park has three capable options in senior DeViaughn Benion and juniors Antonio Cannon and Jamari Watson. "All three of them are going to get a significant amount of opportunities," Hoerster said.
The receiver corps graduated three seniors. But it has some potential to be good again with 6-5 senior KeJuan Ratcliff and junior Cole Fields, a transfer from Mundelein.
On defense, the Huskies are a little short on experience with just three starters returning: end Allen Stallings, middle linebacker Marty McAndrews and free safety Nate Godwin.
"They've progressed a lot," Yates said of the defensive players. "They're getting the jitters out."
One interesting aspect of the Huskies' roster is how many multi-sport standouts it features. Lemke-Bell and Stallings both started on the nationally-ranked and Class 3A state champion wrestling team last winter. Benion and Cannon have starred in track.
"I don't believe philosophically in focusing on a [single] sport," Hoerster said.
One thing he does believe is that the Huskies will benefit from having everyone in the program now playing the same offense and defense from the get-go.
"The attitude in the offseason, how we structure practice — now you don't have to teach that anymore," Hoerster said. "We like the direction we're heading."