CHAMPAIGN – When Centennial opens its football season Friday at Tommy Stewart Field against Decatur Eisenhower, interested observers will be eager to note the progress of a bevy of first-year regulars.
Those fans aren't alone.
"So are we," coach Mike McDonnell said of his coaching staff.
As the veteran coach noted, "Every year you have new guys." But Centennial has a few more than in most recent seasons, and they weren't all caused by graduation. Circumstances have conspired to reshape the Chargers' roster as well.
Most notably, incumbent quarterback Meiko Locksley followed his father, Mike, who left Ron Zook's coaching staff after accepting a job in New Mexico last spring. Suddenly, the Chargers needed a new quarterback.
That came on the heels of a decision by top rusher Rayvonte Rice to skip football for his senior season. Rice, one of the stars of the school's state championship basketball squad, will focus on hoops these days. Suddenly, the Chargers needed to fill a running back spot.
The new quarterback is junior Jake Chesnut (5-foot-11, 155 pounds), a former backup. His teammates think so highly of him that he was elected one of the team's four captains, joining three seniors.
"He's a hockey player in the offseason so he can bang it up with people and likes to do that," McDonnell said. "I wish he were a little bigger, but that's OK."
The featured back will be junior Shaquille Traylor, a blend of speed and size (205 pounds) who also serves as one of the team's best defensive players at linebacker. Traylor averaged more than 11 yards a carry in limited 2008 action.
Around those two are a number of players who have seen a modicum of varsity action. How quickly they develop will help to determine whether the Chargers can return to the postseason for the first time since 2006.
"I like the attitude and the enthusiasm," McDonnell said. "We've had some struggles with some guys who don't want to listen to coaches or guys who were lazy in the past. These guys, most of them are young, but they're coachable, they're ready and they listen. They try their best to do what you need to do. They're fun to coach."
What to watch
Three reasons Centennial has reason to be optimistic heading into the 2009 football season:
1. Shaq attack
Running back Shaquille Traylor has shown glimpses of greatness during limited action. He'll get a full look this time around.
2. On the defensive
The defense has solid linebacking anchors in Traylor and senior Will Tomlinson, also one of the top punters in the area.
3. The great unknown
With so many relatively new faces in the lineup, the Chargers have new energy and purpose, along with a chance to prove themselves.