How Harlem changed its entire offense by necessity and made school playoff history

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Harlem's Deandre Young celebrates a touchdown on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Harlem High School in Machesney Park.

MACHESNEY PARK — Austin Redmon was going to be a star. No one in the NIC-10 threw as much as Harlem, which averaged 305 yards passing in James Cooper’s senior year two years ago.

And now it was Redmon’s turn. But he was hurt for a game or two, both last year and this season. Worse, Harlem lost two starting receivers to injury before the season even began and a third at mid-season.

“We used to be really heavy on passing, but when we lost our three best receivers we knew we had to change our offensive system,” Harlem receiver/running back/defensive back DeAndre Young said. “We just started running the ball.”

But handing it off didn’t seem to work. Jahmani Muhammad averaged barely 3 yards a carry the first month. So Harlem switched to a Wildcat, with Muhammad or Young taking direct snaps most of the time and defensive linemen Keshawn Harrington-McKinney and Logan Lawson moonlighting as blocking fullbacks.

More:How Harlem's little sophomore running back is making big NIC-10 football history

And that quarterback, who now seldom passes and often doesn’t even hand off, also opening up holes.

“You can count me in as one of the honorary offensive linemen,” Redmon said. “If I have to block to win, that’s what I will do.”

That’s what he did. And that’s what Harlem did Saturday night, holding off Grayslake North 24-20 to reach the third round of the playoffs for the first time in school history.

“It was difficult losing all of those guys,” Redmon said. “Every one who got injured was a brother to me. But we adjusted and got ready to just run the ball down people’s throats.”

And there, at the end, with Harlem needing one first down to run out the clock after Grayslake North dropped a fourth-down pass inside the 5-yard line, it was Redmon with the ball in his hands. Muhammad had 86 yards on 25 carries. Young had 99 on 13 rushes. But now, with the game on the line, it was Redmon running three straight times. For 7 yards. For 1 yard. And then the game-clinching 5-yarder on third-and-2 from Harlem’s 32.

“Everyone on the field knew where the ball was going — but we knew we were going to get it,” Redmon said.

Harlem (8-3) ran the wildcat on well over half of its plays, with whoever took the direct snap taking off on a run. It frustrated coaches from Grayslake North (9-2). One assistant in the press box muttered “it’s the simplest offense I’ve ever seen and we can’t stop it.”

It was a far cry from the offense Harlem wanted to run, but it’s what the Huskies needed.

“We knew that play would work every single time,” Young said.

“It’s a great play,” Muhammad said. “I’ve got the big guys in front of me, getting that push and moving the chains.”

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

Harlem ran 45 times for 225 yards Saturday. The Huskies passed only eight times. For 12 yards. But 8 of those came on a 3rd-and-6 pass to Kelton Busekros to begin the Huskies’ game-winning 65-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter. Redmon (40 yards on seven carries) finished off that drive with consecutive runs of 14 yards, 3 yards and then 1 yard for the TD.

The Huskies are also good at running back kicks. After a 61-yard run helped Grayslake North take a 7-0 lead, Muhammad took the ensuring kickoff back 85 yards to tie the game 7-all.

“The momentum shifted really quickly after I took it to the house,” Muhammad said.

Abe Beary kicked a 31-yard field goal and Harlem took that 10-7 lead into halftime by stopping Grayslake North on fourth-and-1 from the 9 in the final two minutes of the half. Harlem then scored on its opening drive of the third quarter, with Young running in from 22 yards out of the wildcat.

Grayslake then took the lead 20-17 on 20- and 34-yard TD passes to Cameron Bates. A 23-yard scramble by quarterback Jacob Donahue when it looked like he might be sacked on first-and-24 put the Knights in position to win. But heavy pressure led to three straight incomplete passes. Harlem had pressure again on fourth down, but a man was open inside the 5 and had his hands on the ball but couldn’t haul it in.

Instead — three Redmon runs later — Harlem celebrated.

“It feels amazing,” Young said. “A 10 out of 10 feeling. The best feeling in the world.”

“We made school history. On to the next round,” Muhammad said.

Heroes:Rockford's top performers for the second round of the IHSA football playoffs

The next round pits Harlem against a team that plays like the Huskies. Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge quarterback Tyler Vasey has run for 3,114 yards this season, including 392 and 279 in the Wolves’ two playoff wins, with 14 touchdowns in those two games. He needs 212 more to set the state record.

But the Wolves have also allowed more than 40 points in three of their last four games.

It won’t be easy, but nothing has been easy for Harlem. Several of its best players were injured and missed Harlem’s playoff game in coach Bob Moynihan’s first season four years ago. There were no playoffs the next year when Harlem went unbeaten (6-0) for the first time ever during the COVID season. Last year the Huskies lost a nail-biter in the second round. This year they won a nail-biter.

“The kids persevered,” Moynihan said. “I talk every day about how you are going to have adversity in life. You are going to get knocked down. It’s how you get back up that matters. Every time, they have gotten back up.”

Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and three years covering the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.