|Knox College's new head football coach knows what it takes to win, which he's proven on the field as a standout defensive back for his alma mater and on the sidelines as a head coach.
The Prairie Fire will be led during the 2010 season by Chad Eisele, who is also the College's athletic director and a former all-conference cornerback during his time on the gridiron before graduating from Knox in 1993. Eisele shares the school record for pass interceptions in a game with three and is in the top three all-time for career interceptions. He had a hand in 17 Prairie Fire victories during his four years as a player, and prior to arriving to Knox from Peoria Richwoods High School, he was a member of the Knights' 1984 state championship team.
Eisele is trying to turn around a Prairie Fire football program that hasn't had a winning season since 2002. That squad finished with a 6-4 record. Eisele, who spent the past two seasons as Knox's offensive coordinator, returns as a head coach after spending five seasons in charge at Midwest Conference rival Lake Forest College (2000-2005) and one at Minnesota State-Moorhead.
The scenario Eisele finds himself in at Knox is a familiar one. He inherited a team at Lake Forest in 2000 that hadn't achieved a winning season since 1986. Eisele led the Foresters to a Midwest Conference Championship in 2002, that program's first league crown since 1983, and to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division III playoffs. Eisele was named the 2002 Midwest Conference Coach of the Year after his team finished with a 9-2 record (9-1 regular season) in just his third season at the helm.
Eisele didn't think he'd ever be in the position he's in now. "To have the opportunity to be the head football coach at your alma mater is something I never dreamed would happen for me, and just through circumstances it has, so I'm excited about the opportunity and looking forward to making the most of it."
Former Prairie Fire head football coach Andy Gibbons remains on Eisele's staff as the defensive coordinator. Gibbons has been part of Knox football for nearly two decades and is the architect behind Knox's new 3-4 defense this season. Another big switch is to a spread offense.
Eisele says the players are well-suited for the new offensive and defensive systems.
"For me, the whole thing is what offense and defense fits the team's personality most. We feel for us to be consistent on offense, we need to spread people out," Eisele said. "If they want to load the box, we'll throw the ball, and if they want to spread the defense out, then we'll run on them. That's more of an offense of what I've come from and I feel more comfortable calling. I feel it fits our personnel."
Eisele says the new defense Knox will play this season should bring out the best in that unit.
"Defensively, our linebackers, we feel, are very athletic. We're very young defensively but very athletic and I think playing a 3-4 defense will enhance their ability to make plays," said Eisele. "That's what it's all about defensively, making plays and forcing turnovers."
Eisele and his coaching staff are working with a group that is dominated by 47 underclassmen, including 20 first-year players. The mix also includes 12 juniors and 12 seniors. The coach says some of the younger players played big minutes last year, and more will be asked of them this season.
"We started nine freshmen the last game of the year (last season) against Monmouth, so we've got a lot of kids who have college game experience and are ready to take the next step. Last year's freshman class is a great group of guys, very committed, and we are going to ask some of them to take on leadership roles because they are going to be two-year returning starters," Eisele said. "We've got a smaller upperclass with juniors and seniors, so we're going to need those younger kids to step in to some leadership roles early on."
A new crop of first-year players will add to the talent the team picked up last season. Eisele says many are capable of playing right away, especially up front protecting the quarterback and blocking.
"I think our offensive line is probably the best offensive line recruiting class that I've been associated with. Neal Moon from Missouri comes in with all-state accolades, Jordan Willits from Aledo, Illinois/Mercer County is coming in with all-state accolades and we've got some other kids with some size: Tim Worrell from ROWVA is one and Jeremy Ransom from Crystal Lake South. Those are a few kids in that class, just size-wise, who help us immediately and it's something we're very excited about."
The underclassmen will need to play big with the loss of 19 letter winners from last season's team, including 13 starters. Among the players who will be missed most is First Team All-Midwest Conference defensive end Tighe Burke. Burke recorded 69 tackles, 15.5 for a loss, led the team with 7.5 quarterback sacks and picked off one pass. He also rushed for two touchdowns as a fullback on offense, was a captain for the Prairie Fire and was named the squad's Most Valuable Senior and Most Valuable Defensive Player.
Eisele says Burke isn't someone the team can replace, but Knox has skilled returners on defense, including another all-conference selection, who are able to help fill the void.
"Having Elliot Madison (All-MWC Honorable Mention in 2009) come back, he'll be a junior for us, I believe is an all-conference defensive end for us and is a great all-around kid for us on and off the field. He's someone who will help fill (Burke's) spot and a kid who's really started for us for two years," said Eisele, who also likes sophomore Lloyd Scott on the defensive line. "We moved him to nose tackle, and if there's a nose tackle in our league with more potential than Lloyd, I'd find it hard to believe. He's got phenomenal speed and strength at that position and I think he's going to cause offenses all kinds of fits this year."
Madison had 29 tackles last season, 12 of them unassisted, and 1.5 sacks. Scott made 35 stops, including six for a loss, and recorded two sacks.
Eisele says the team is also counting on senior defensive back Lucas Motta, a captain who's started and played all four years at Knox. Motta was third on the squad last season with 65 tackles. "Lucas is a kid we need to step up and be a prime time player. He always seems to be in the right position, but hasn't always made the plays in the past. We have that expectation for him now," said Eisele.
Offensively, senior quarterback Bill Meyer - a two-time captain - will be the starting signal caller for the Prairie Fire and the team's new Pistol spread offense. Meyer threw for 549 yards and five touchdowns in 2009. He also rushed for 316 yards, second on the squad.
Eisele believes Meyer will be successful in the new system. "Coming from Cary-Grove, he has high expectations of himself and his teammates, and he's been a phenomenal leader for us both on and off the field. I feel this offense will suit Bill. He's a very good runner, he's a decent passer - passing isn't his strength - but he's good enough at it and I think he'll be able to thrive in both areas for this offense."
Other playmakers Eisele is looking to this season are sophomore H-back Jonas Mack and junior wide receiver Clarke Cuthbert.
"Jonas is a kid who's coming off an injury-plagued season and was out for most of it. He is another kid from Cary-Grove who we have high expectations for helping us offensively. Cuthbert started for us at receiver in our former offense. Being a receiver wasn't the most highlighted position, (but) it is more in (the spread) offense and we're going to expect Clarke to catch a lot of big balls for us and be consistent for us at that position," Eisele said.
Cuthbert caught nine passes for 118 yards last season, an average of 13.1 yards per grab.
Eisele wants the veterans on the offensive line to step up their games and help the talented incoming linemen. "Bob Dempster and John Fletcher are two kids who will be seniors for us and we're going to expect consistency from. With the young offensive linemen, I talked about being leaders for them and role models for them. Alex Davis is included in that group too.'
Knox will have to improve on a league-low 10.8 points per game last season to win more games. The Prairie Fire had some success running the football, churning out 160.2 yards per game.
Derek Mortensen, a sophomore, will be a key in the backfield for Knox. He led the team with 447 yards on the ground and two scores a year ago.
Senior Dan Kizior will also be utilized in the backfield and on kick returns, a position he excelled in last season. Kizior was named a Second Team All-Midwest Conference kick returner for the Prairie Fire after finishing third in the league with 522 yards, or 21.8 yards per return, and one touchdown. The versatile Kizior also rushed for 152 yards and caught four passes for 118 yards and one score.
Eisele says the team, however, must be more of a factor on offense this season.
"We would struggle for long periods at a time not moving the football down the field (last season) and really hurting us where we took over on the field. That's huge. We don't have to score every time we touch the ball, but we've got to have the threat of scoring every time we touch the ball and we've got to be able to move the ball consistently."
The team also has to improve in the other major facets of the game: defense and special teams. Eisele is confident the new-look Prairie Fire will get that done if the team is consistent.
"Defensively, we've got to make more plays - we've got to have more turnovers, we've got to keep the offense guessing - and I know in this (3-4) scheme that Coach (Andy) Gibbons and the staff have put together that they're going to cause a lot of problems for different people and to be able to give people different looks and I think this new defensive scheme brings that so I am very excited about that," Eisele said.
"The kicking game. We were not very good at kicking the ball off last year and did not do a very good job of that. We've got three kids who are competing for kickoffs and extra point/field goals, so that's good to have that competition. And our punt game, we're not 100 percent sure who's going to be our punter and that's an issue we're going to have to address in camp and hopefully be able to have a consistent answer there. So, all three areas there needs to be improved and I think with our new schemes and what we're doing, I think we'll see those things."
Eisele is preaching consistency with his team, and he says that will be the difference between a good season and a bad season.
"I certainly think our kids have high expectations on this season and they should. They've worked very hard. Consistency, play in and play out, to me, is a big part of it. We're going to be playing a lot of sophomores, and even though they're young, a lot of these kids are going into their second year as starters. Are they going to be more consistent than they were as freshmen?"
"Consistency will be a key this year as it is in any year and something that we'll have to focus on. If we're not consistent, then we're going to struggle. If we are consistent, then we're going to have a much better season than we've had the past few years."
Eisele says the good news is there's going to be a lot of players returning with experience next year. "I don't believe in rebuilding years and I don't believe in wait until next year. To me, being a winner is accountability in your play and your effort you give on the practice field and in the weight room and on the game field. And are you going to be consistent in your play? Those are the things that we need to be able to be this year, to be accountable for ourselves and to be consistent."
The Prairie Fire opens the new season September 4 (7:00 p.m.) at Washington University in St. Louis.
The Bears have been a traditional power in their conference, the University Athletic Association. Washington Universisty head coach Larry Kindbom, in his 21st season at the school, has compiled a 130-80 record. He's led the Bears to eight UAA titles and the first NCAA playoff appearance in school history in 1999. Kindbom's team put together a 7-3 record in 2007, extending their school-record run of winning seasons to 15 in a row. The streak ended in 2008 when the Bears finished 5-5.
Last season was a rare down year as Wash U. finished with a 4-6 overall record, including a 1-2 mark in league play. The sub-.500 season was only the third for the Bears under Kindbom's leadership.
Knox plays another powerhouse, Midwest Conference foe St. Norbert College, in its home opener at the Knosher Bowl September 18 at 1:00 p.m.
(Written and submitted by Knox College)