Devonte Dunn has been a big part of the Nazareth Academy football team’s state championship runs the past two seasons.
As one of just 10 seniors and few returning veterans, Dunn already is making a greater impact.
“Since we have a big target on our back, it just gives us more motivation to keep pushing,” Dunn said. “We know what’s at stake, what we need to do. We have to get the younger guys up to pace and show them what varsity football is.”
The Roadrunners have big shoes to fill after winning last year’s Class 5A state title game 42-21 over Lincoln-Way West following an undefeated 6A state title run in 2014.
This year’s roster is the youngest ever for longtime coach Tim Racki. Two linemen are the only returning starters for an offense that scored at least 33 points in all 12 victories.
Dunn and seniors Christian Sampleton and Cameron Weems will be key contributors on offense and defense. Two of the team’s eight All-East Suburban Catholic Conference players for 2015, Dunn verbally committed to play at Toledo in June and Sampleton will play at Yale.
“Those guys have been just tremendous in terms of leadership over the summer,” Racki said. “If people told me I was going to have this small of a senior class but have this class, I’d definitely take what I have now with the type of studs we have, not just in terms of ability but leadership.”
Dunn and Sampleton will play defensive end with Weems at safety. Offensively, Weems will play running back with Dunn at tackle and Sampleton at tight end.
“They’re old-school ironmen. They don’t want to come off the field,” Racki said.
Last season, Sampleton had a team-best 8.5 sacks and was third on the Roadrunners with 66 total tackles. Dunn had four sacks and 52 tackles and Weems had 41 tackles and scored one touchdown on defense and offense.
Senior defensive tackle Tom Henehan, junior linebackers Austin Reifstack and Wes Lones (62 tackles) and cornerback Josh Oglesby and sophomore lineman Cameron Leach also were full- or part-time defensive starters in 2015.
Offensively, the only returning starters are junior center Gavin Smith and Dunn.
Battling for quarterback are senior AJ Rouse and junior Zach Stevens. Rouse was last year’s backup and caught one touchdown pass. Stevens is a transfer from St. Patrick.
“Both are viable options at this point. We took it this summer day by day by giving them equal reps,” Racki said.
The all-new starting rushing and receiving corps will feature Weems and Oglesby, a “real burner,” according to Racki. Besides graduations, Ivory Kelly-Martin, who rushed for 170 yards and 4 touchdowns in the state final, transferred to Oswego East and receiver Justin Weller moved to Pennsylvania for their senior years.
Strong special teams should make a difference. Senior kicker Aidan Bresnahan converted 49 of 54 extra points and one field goal in 2015, his first football season following soccer. He will be complemented by junior punter Dan Wilkinson.
“The kicking game is going to be a big plus for us,” Racki said. “If we have a strong defense and kicking game, it will give our offense more time to gel.”
Newcomers include junior linemen Isaiah Lee and Mike Rotolo. Lee sat out 2015 after transferring schools but did participate in team practices.
Other underclassmen received varsity practice experience when they were promoted to the expanded playoff roster. Several even played in the state final, which Nazareth led 42-0 at halftime.
“(The playoffs are) almost like spring ball (in college). They get to experience the speed, focus, everything it takes and they need to put in if they want to be successful,” Racki said.
“Week to week last year, that team worked to get better (from a 5-2 start). The key to success is the leadership and selflessness of the guys. It may not be the position they’re used to playing or want to play, but they have to play it for us to be successful.”