Kevin Clifford rushed for 779 yards and 15 touchdowns last season for Naperville Central. | Terence Guider-Shaw/For Sun-Times Media
From Kevin Clifford's viewpoint, Naperville Central's intrasquad scrimmage on Friday was a mixed bag.
"There were some good things and some bad," the senior running back said. "Penalties killed us. Need to try to stay clean with everything. The other thing is effort — there were a lot of loafs."
But there's no question the Redhawks also have a significant upside. The No. 9 team in the Sun-Times
Preseason Super 25 returns some key pieces of last year's Class 8A state champs.
On offense, start with Clifford, the team's leading rusher (149 carries, 779 yards) and scorer (15 touchdowns) on an 11-3 club. Also back are two proven receivers: senior Michael Kolzow (61 catches, 777 yards, 9 TDs) and junior Emmanuel Rugamba (23-383-2).
Four senior starters are back on defense: Joe Schweikart on the line, Bobby McMillen (80 solo tackles, 46 assists, 10 sacks) and Dan DelGrosso at linebacker and Kolzow in the secondary.
Naperville Central may not be in championship form out of the gate in 2014. But that's OK; last year's club survived three straight losses after a 5-0 start. The idea is to get the newcomers up to speed as quickly as possible and go from there.
"It's a different game," Clifford said of the transition from sophomore ball. "It's not easy coming up and playing varsity football at a big school like Naperville Central. ...
"It's hard to see how good we really are. [But] if you look at us Week 1 [of last year], we're not that far behind."
This team could have a different focus on offense as junior quarterback Conor Joyce takes over for Jake Kolbe, who's now at Illinois State.
"He can run it, he has a strong arm," coach Mike Stine said of Joyce. "He's a versatile quarterback."
Clifford is prepared to get more carries this season. "I trained over at Acceleration [Sports Performance in Naperville] with McMillen and Kolzow," he said. "I was at 185 [pounds] in the state game, 170 now. I worked on my core and on losing weight in my legs."
"Kevin Clifford's going to be great if he stays healthy," Stine said. "He's going to surprise some people. He hasn't gotten a lot of fanfare."
But the Redhawks do want to be balanced, and Kolzow (an Illinois State commit) and Rugamba (who has an offer from Illinois) figure to prevent opponents from stacking the box to stop Clifford.
The offensive line is a work in progress with five new starters. But, Clifford said, that group "shows a lot of potential as well."
On the other side of the ball, the unquestioned leader is McMillen, a three-star prospect committed to Iowa State who will be a three-year starter.
But he will have help. DelGrosso is "as athletic as Bobby," according to Stine, while Schweikart is "a great guy coming off the edge." And Kolzow showed his defensive chops in last year's 8A semifinal win over Marist when he picked off two passes, returning one for a touchdown.
The Redhawks also have one of the state's best kickers in junior Connor Assalley, who kicked two field goals in the 8A championship game and was 8-of-9 for the season.
"The kids expect to be good," Stine said. "They expect to make a run at the conference title, get to the playoffs and make a run in the playoffs."