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.
CHAMPAIGN — Ask Eivory Shellman how the conversation went on who would replace Bryson Lee at quarterback, and the St. Thomas More senior minimizes the exchange.
“I played quarterback a long time in youth football, but I haven’t played quarterback at all in high school,” Shellman said. “When Bryson left, we weren’t sure who our quarterback was going to be.”
But third-year STM football coach Nathan Watson quickly interjects at the end of a recent Sabers’ practice just beyond the high school in north Champaign.
“He’s being humble about it, but he said, ‘I want to be that guy,’” Watson said. “That’s exactly what he said.”
Turns out, Shellman is the guy under center for the Sabers this upcoming season. The 5-foot-9, 145-pound senior is a two-year starter with STM on both sides of the ball. He’ll continue those duties again this fall, but with the added responsibilities of quarterback, a position Lee — now a freshman wide receiver at Idaho — held each of the last two seasons, accumulating 3,506 yards of total offense and 38 total touchdowns.
And for three seasons before that, Bryson’s older brother, DJ — also a receiver at Idaho entering his redshirt sophomore season — manned the quarterback spot for the Sabers, racking up 5,103 yards of total offense and 52 total TDs.
So Shellman, who played running back and receiver last season along with starting in the defensive secondary, is well aware of what the quarterback lineage STM has produced in the past five seasons.
“They taught me how to always go hard because watching them play, that’s what they would do,” Shellman said. “I just need to try and keep that same energy.”
He’ll get his first chance at 7 p.m. on Aug. 30 when the Sabers travel to face rival St. Joseph-Ogden to kick off a nine-game Illini Prairie Conference slate. After narrowly missing out on the playoffs last season — the Sabers started out 4-2 only to lose their final three games and finish 4-5 — a chance to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2016 isn’t lost on this current group.
“We’ve been in the weight room since November,” said senior Hunter Howell, who is expected to contribute at running back and linebacker. “We’ve been lifting weights to get stronger, so we have a lot of physical strength. The guys are really motivated. It’s probably the most motivated team I’ve ever been a part of.”
When Shellman isn’t running the ball himself or handing it off to Howell, with sophomore Pablo Gonzalez also in the mix to get carries, he can look forward to throwing to 6-4, 220-pound senior tight end Parker Jackson.
“Parker had the most catches his sophomore year on the team, and then last year, we spread it out a little bit more,” Watson said. “He also had a shoulder injury in Week 9 and it affected him early in the season. He’s back now and he’s better. Not only will he play like a tight end on the line, but we’ll be able to split him out wide. That’s going to help.”
Sophomore receiver Patrick Quarnstrom is another option in the passing game, with three returning starters on the offensive line in senior Justin Smith, senior J.D. Sexton and junior Averi Hughes expected to anchor that unit. Senior Spencer Burgin, who has never played football before, is also expected to start on the offensive line and was already named a captain by his teammates.
Hughes and junior Jason Brown, who is slated to back up Shellman at quarterback, will help shore up the defensive line, while Howell and Jackson help out at linebacker. Shellman, along with sophomores Adonai Bumba, Braylon Peacock and Dawson Magrini, are slated to help in the secondary, with all four starting at various points last season.
Numbers are down this season for the Sabers, with 30 in the program compared to 40 last season. But it’s more than the 22 players Watson inherited his first season at STM in 2017, and many boast experience heading into this fall.
“Everyone is going to contribute,” Watson said. “Everyone has a role.”
It’s an aspect veterans like Howell, Jackson and others appreciate going into what they hope is a memorable season along North Mattis Avenue.
“Ever since Coach Watson got here, the culture has changed for the better,” Howell said. “Guys respect him, and we respect each other. That’s a huge part of it. He’s done a great job establishing that, and the guys that have been here for three years, they know what to expect.”
And for opponents who have focused on stopping a Lee in the past, the focus now shifts to Shellman & Co.
“It’s no offense to Bryson because I love him to death and he’s still a hero in my own kids’ eyes, but we relied heavily on him,” Watson said. “If you could stop Bryson, you were going to stop us last year. This year, we’re more balanced, and that’s the hardest team to defend because you don’t know what they’re going to do on each play.”
When you can see the Sabers
A look at St. Thomas More football’s 2019 schedule:
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Aug. 30 at St. Joseph-Ogden 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Olympia 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Monticello 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Chillicothe IVC 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 vs. Rantoul 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Bloomington CC 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. Unity 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Pontiac 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. Prairie Central 7 p.m.