Each day over the 2 1/2 weeks leading up to the 2019 IHSA football season, the News-Gazette will be previewing all 37 teams in its coverage area.
VILLA GROVE — Kehm Shirley, in his coach’s words, became “the go-to guy” for Villa Grove/Heritage football’s running situation last year.
A big reason for that was a serious offseason injury to Chase Burwell, who was going to hold that lead running back role for the Blue Devils.
So what happens now that both are healthy senior captains with the 2019 VG/H squad, which opens a new campaign Aug. 30 at Tuscola?
“We’re going to be unstoppable,” Shirley said with a smile, simultaneously sharing a fist-bump with Burwell.
The Blue Devils’ biggest ground threats have significant expectations for their final prep season, including bettering a 5-5 record that was capped by a first-round playoff exit.
It’s a rather fortunate happening for second-year VG/H leader Heath Wilson. That’s because Burwell was slated to be the bellcow as a junior, soaking up a majority of the carries that eventually went to Shirley.
But Burwell suffered a broken leg during a 7-on-7 session, and Shirley was the next man up.
“That’s exactly what I kept telling myself through all the physical therapy and everything,” Burwell said. “It’s just a big blessing in disguise.”
Shirley wasn’t anticipating a spotlight within the Blue Devils’ offense, but warmed to the occasion to the tune of 102 totes for 554 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’ve stepped up a lot compared to how I was,” Shirley said. “I was a lot more timid sophomore year. I didn’t really like contact. But it doesn’t bother me anymore.”
Wilson sees Burwell as “more of our power back” and Shirley as a finesse rusher, with both being athletes he can utilize at fullback, tailback or pass-catching in the flat.
“We’ve (also) got a very good quarterback as a junior, Blake Smith, that could be just as dominant with his legs,” Wilson said. “We have ... three or four guys that can run when we need to run it.”
That’s a major development for both Shirley and Burwell, albeit for different reasons.
Shirley’s is more mindset-based.
“As a freshman, I wouldn’t have seen myself coming this far at all,” Shirley said, “when I was getting to senior year.”
Burwell’s is more physical in nature.
“I worked really hard to get back into (football),” Burwell said. “I couldn’t walk for about six months. It was pretty rough, but it’s all good now.”
That’s good news for Wilson and his staff, who seek more from the offense after it exceeded 24 points just twice in 10 tries last season.
“I’d love to put up 35 points a game,” Wilson said. “Having (Shirley and Burwell) in the backfield at any time, I think either one of them could bust it.”
VG/H enters Year 2 under Wilson with 18 seniors, as well as the knowledge some upperclassmen shifted to football after not playing in Wilson’s opening stretch of games.
“It’s motivating that we can get people that haven’t played football,” Shirley said, “and then out of nowhere, their junior, senior year, they’re just coming out and playing.”
What this equates to remains to be seen.
If Burwell and Shirley get their way, it’ll be something entirely new to Blue Devils fans.
“We want to see (Week) 14, so that’s what we’ve been working for,” Burwell said. “Don’t want to expect anything less than that.”
When you can see the Blue Devils in action
A look at Villa Grove Heritage’s 2019 football schedule:
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 30 at Tuscola 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Tri-County 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Arcola 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Sangamon Valley 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 vs. Cerro Gordo/Bement 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. Argenta-Oreana 1 p.m.
Oct. 11 at Cumberland 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Decatur Lutheran 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at ALAH 7 p.m.