FOOTBALL

X-factors: 17 football players who could help decide playoff games around Rockford

Jay Taft Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Lena-Winslow's Gunar Lobdell finds an opening against Durand/Pecatonica on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, at Pecatonica High School in Pecatonica.

Jahmani Muhammad leads the NIC-10 in rushing, but is probably not the key Huskies player in Saturday’s playoff game. Garrett Gensler leads the entire area in rushing and is the key to a Rochelle playoff run.

Sometimes the key player is obvious. Sometimes it’s not. Here are our choices for important players to watch in each for each of the 14 Rockford-area football teams in their first-round playoff games this weekend:

Garrett Gensler, Rochelle

Dixon (6-3) at Rochelle (7-2): Trey Taft (813 yards, 10 TDs, 9.2-yard average) gives Rochelle two big threats, but Gensler is the Hubs’ main hammer with 1,453 yards, 25 TDs and a 9.6 average. With 2,723 career yards, he is closing in on becoming a rare area 3,000-yard rusher. Byron and Stillman Valley ran all over Dixon in 30-point victories. Rochelle likely will, too.

More:Where and when Rockford-area teams play in the 2022 IHSA football playoffs

Keshawn Harrington-McKinney, Harlem

Harlem (6-3) at Chicago Amundsen (7-2): Harrington-McKinney is the best defensive lineman in the NIC-10. But it's what he and fellow defensive lineman Logan Lawson have done on offense that has transformed Harlem's run game the last five weeks. Muhammad averaged 40 yards rushing in his first month and 3.2 yards per carry. Since Harrington-McKinney and Lawson started doing double duty as H-back type blocking fullbacks, Muhammad has averaged 201 yards and 8.4 yards a carry. That has helped Harlem recover from losing three of its top five receivers to injury.

“We don’t have to pull our linemen. We pull our fullbacks,” Harlem coach Bob Moynihan said. “They give us two extra linemen. We had to do something. I’m more of a spread, RPO type guy. but you can’t do that when you don’t have receivers.”

More:Friday Night Eats: Alumni from Harlem know how to keep fans fed

Belvidere North's Nico Bertolino breaks a tackle against Boylan on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, at Belvidere North High School in Belvidere.

Nico Bertolino, Belvidere North

Grayslake Central (6-3) at Belvidere North (7-2): Bertolino is seventh in the NIC-10 with 599 yards rushing. But he is first in average by almost a yard and a half at 10.2. Fullback Darius Fort and quarterback Maddox Gyllenswan each run almost twice as often as Bertolino (59 rushes), but Bertolino is North’s home-run threat. He is also a star at defensive back and kick returner. North rations his touches in part because it doesn’t want to over-use him. That may go out the window in the playoffs.

Gunar Lobdell, Lena-Winslow

Chicago Richards (5-4) at Lena-Winslow (9-0): While Le-Win, the defending Class 1A state champions, has a stable of running backs once again this season, it's the new guy that has made some of the biggest plays so far, and could make more to come. Lobdell was a star for the Orangeville 8-man football squad last year, and his family moved in the offseason, and he's now stationed in the Panthers' backfield. Lobdell is second in the NUIC with 1,100 yards rushing and 15 TDs, and he could be the Panthers back to watch this postseason.

More:Who's going to win? We pick IHSA first-round playoff games for Rockford-area football teams

De’Vion Black and Gian Herrera, Guilford

Batavia (6-3) at Guilford (7-2): Black, a linebacker, and defensive end Herrera have combined for five defensive touchdowns this year. Black’s defensive score to open the game was the key to last week’s 14-7 upset over Belvidere North. Guilford probably needs another defensive score — or at least a couple of turnovers — to upend a Batavia team that has a strong playoff history.

Caden Considine, Byron

Lisle (5-4) at Byron (8-1): Considine was turning into the Tigers' go-to ballcarrier before he twisted his ankle and missed three straight games. Now the 5-foot-11, 200-pound freshman is set to return and could provide a huge list to Byron in the playoffs. He has 438 yards rushing and five TDs, which is second on the team despite missing time. While this is a very deep Byron backfield, with seven guys rushing for over 200 yards, Considine could provide a boost.

Byron running back Caden Considine  is tackled by Rockford Lutheran's Kyng Hughes during the first quarter of their game in Byron on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. Byron won the game 45-6.

Kyng Hughes, Lutheran

Rockford Lutheran (5-4) at Annawan/Wethersfield (7-2): Hughes has come up clutch for Lutheran of late, on both sides of the ball, but especially last Friday when he threw for 214 yards and a touchdown while completing 11 of his 16 passes as the Crusaders upset Winnebago 21-7 to qualify for the playoffs. Not only is he the team's leading rusher (393 yards and 5 TDs) and passer (886 yards passing and 9 TDs), but he's also one of the leaders on the defensive side of the ball at corner. He will be tested out there right off the bat, too.

Estin Fichter and Luke Poppe, Hononegah

Normal Community (6-3) at Hononegah (7-2): For much of the season, quarterback Cole Warren was Hononegah’s leading rusher. That was a welcome new wrinkle to the offense. But it was also a sign of desperation as Hononegah’s normal run game struggled. But Estin Fichter and Luke Poppe have been run well the last three weeks, starting with gaining 125 yards on 19 carries in a loss to Belvidere North. It’s hard to imagine Hononegah winning in the playoffs without a strong run game.

“It’s been a work in progress,” interim head coach Marc LaMay said. “In the last couple of weeks, we have put in our best run games and defensive efforts. The second half of the North game, our run game came alive.”

Connor Dennis, Boylan

Country Club Hills Hillcrest (5-4) at Boylan (8-1): Dennis would have joined Harlem’s James Cooper as the only sophomore to lead the NIC-10 in passing if he hadn’t been injured for the playoffs last year, falling 27 yards short. Now Boylan gets to see what it can do with a healthy quarterback. Dennis has 1,588 yards passing and 23 touchdowns, tied with Lamont Toney for the school TD record and only five behind Harlem's James Cooper for the conference mark.

More:Rockford football powers Boylan, Byron and Le-Win could win state titles. Here's how

Johnny Kobler, Forreston

Forreston (5-4) at Peru St. Bede (7-2): Kobler, a converted lineman who now plays fullback, has had a huge year, rushing for 983 yards and 15 TDs and helping Forreston back into the playoffs. While the Cardinals' backfield is deep once again, it could be Kobler that carries them if they make a run. Kobler helped set the tone for the season when he rushed for 120 yards on 12 carries with two TDs during Forreston's 44-14 season-opening win over Stockton. And he rushed for a season-high 210 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries when Forreston battled Dakota down the wire, eventually losing 32-28 in Week 4.

Kaidyn Niedermeier, Dakota

Dakota (5-4) at Gilman Iroquois West (7-2): Niedermeier has transformed the Dakota offense this season, turning a once run-heavy scheme into one of the most balanced attacks in the entire region. He will be thoroughly tested in the first round. Niedermeier has thrown for 1,029 yards and 13 TDs, both tops in the NUIC, and he has 260 yards on the ground with 5 TDs.

Stillman Valley's head coach Mike Lalor talks to Kale Rauman on the sidelines on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022, at Stillman Valley High School in Stillman Valley.

Stillman Valley's QB tandem

Monmouth-Roseville (5-4) at Stillman Valley (8-1): Stillman Valley coach Mike Lalor has stuck with a straight QB rotation all season long with Braden Engel and Kale Rauman swapping in and out just about every play. It worked, all the way until last week's 32-28 setback to Genoa-Kingston. Still, even with that loss, the Cardinals' offense has clicked all year. With three running backs all having their moments, led by Porter Needs (787 yards and 10 TD) and Jory Spain (784 yards and 16 TDs) and joined by Owen Zitkus (677 yards and 3 TDs), the two QBs just need to be solid game managers. They both are.

Alec Weavel, Winnebago

Winnebago (5-4) at Seneca (9-0): Winnebago's offense has transformed this year, and quarterback Weavel is the reason why. And while his teammate Supreme Muhammad (882 yards and 12 TDs on the ground) leads the Big Northern Conference in rushing, Weavel is second in the league in passing, and is sure to break 1,000 yards this week, headed in with 978 yards passing and 5 touchdowns. If Winnebago can launch a balanced attack at undefeated Seneca on Friday night in the Class 3A opener, it will have a chance.

More:Here are the final regular-season stats and standings for the Big Northern and NUIC

AJ Mulcahy, Durand/Pecatonica

Chicago Catalyst/Maria (6-3) at Durand/Pecatonica (7-2): Not only is Mulcahy a beast on Du/Pec's defense, but he leads the NUIC in rushing headed into the postseason with 1,177, yards and 20 TDs. Du/Pec runs a spread offense and like to throw it, but sophomore QB Cooper Hoffman has spent a lot of time handing the ball off to Mulcahy this season, and its worked for the 7-2 Rivermen. Now they will need to balance things out as they hit the playoffs. Mulcahy has also turned two of his four receptions into touchdown catches.