Oakwood seeks to make noise in playoffs

Oakwood seeks to make noise in playoffs

FITHIAN — Al Craig's first offseason in charge of Oakwood football came with some questions.

Little time was required to find answers, even with Craig accepting the position in mid-June after Wade DeVries moved on to Roxana.

How would the Comets replace starting quarterback Chase Vinson? Turn to junior and effective "game manager" Rhett Harrison.

What about making up for Skylar Bolton's team-leading 1,382 rushing yards? Look no further than the bruising duo of Colby Smiley and Nick Grubb.

And the matter of bettering a defense that permitted an average of 48.5 points in its four defeats last year? Let various returnees show what they learned from the 2017 campaign.

In other words, Craig couldn't be happier with his first Oakwood crew heading into today's 7 p.m. season opener at home against Watseka.

"I've learned this team is a bunch of guys that like to work hard," said Craig, most recently an assistant at Champaign Central. "They really want to bring Oakwood back to prominence. They're wanting to get that monkey off their back."

The "monkey" Craig mentions is a postseason win drought dating back to 1988. That year, the Comets knocked off Tuscola and Macon in Class 2A action.

Since then, Oakwood hasn't won a single playoff game in 10 subsequent tries.

Perhaps this is the unit that changes the tide. The Comets graduated just seven seniors — albeit some important ones — and return 11 upperclassmen.

"It would mean the world to me," said Grubb, one of those 11 seniors. "As a kid, I went to every high school football game and never saw them win a playoff game. I want to bring that back to Oakwood and bring that joy back to the town."

Ability and talent exists within the Comets to match that winning desire.

Oakwood's ground game is paced by Smiley, a 6-foot, 205-pound junior and Grubb (6-2, 220). Though Smiley rolled to 849 yards and 13 scores with his feet last season, Grubb was relied on more as a linebacker — a role he'll maintain in addition to running the ball.

"(Smiley) loves the game of football. He's a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy," Craig said. "When (Grubb) breaks through a hole and gets to the second level, guys are making business decisions for themselves — 'I don't know if I want any part of that.'

"They're probably one of the biggest backfields in the state of Illinois."

Grubb said he'd like to vie for 1,000 rushing yards this year, and he's just as upbeat as his coach about what the Grubb-Smiley combination can achieve.

"Especially with our line, we'll be a running powerhouse," Grubb said. "It's going to be hard to contain us on the edge with Colby and me up the middle."

The quarterback, Harrison, also has "got a little wiggle to him," according to Craig, in addition to a penchant for clean play and on-the-spot decision-making.

Then there are the stoppers. Grubb brings back a club-best 72 tackles and is supported by senior Mason Ajster (54 tackles) and Smiley (47). And that doesn't even account for the bigs up front.

"The defensive line, I've been really impressed," Craig said. "At one film session I asked, 'Do you trust I'm putting you in the best position to be successful?' They said yes, so I said, 'Then start doing it the right way.' And they haven't looked back at all."

In that vein, the past is behind the Comets. They're trying to get back on right track in both the postseason and the Vermilion Valley Conference.

"I don't think we're going to be out-talented," Craig said. "I think it's going to come down to execution. If we execute, we can certainly hang with anybody."

OAKWOOD'S 2018 Schedule

DATE OPPONENT TIME

Today vs. Watseka 7 p.m.

Aug. 31 vs. Cumberland 7 p.m.

Sept. 7 vs. Argenta-Oreana 7 p.m.

Sept. 14 at HASAAP 7 p.m.

Sept. 21 vs. Iroquois West 7 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Georgetown-Ridge Farm 7 p.m.

Oct. 5 at BHRA 7 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Westville 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 vs. Salt Fork 7 p.m.

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