Huntley football's plan in motion

Coach counting on ‘Division Commanders’ to set tone

Huntley's Division Commander Blake Jacobs (center) is seen during football practice Wednesday at Huntley High School. Huntley's Division Commander leadership corps is an honor voted on by Huntley players.
Huntley's Division Commander Blake Jacobs (center) is seen during football practice Wednesday at Huntley High School. Huntley's Division Commander leadership corps is an honor voted on by Huntley players.
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About this series: Huntley football coach John Hart has given the Northwest Herald and sports reporter Jeff Arnold all-access to his program for the upcoming season. From coaches meetings and film sessions to the pregame locker room, Arnold will write weekly stories from inside the Red Raiders program, providing a glimpse into the lives of high school football players.

HUNTLEY – John Hart hates nothing more than wasted time and openly admits he is so competitive that he is at his worst when nothing meaningful is at stake.

So with his Huntley football team’s season opener against Bartlett only four days away, Hart steps in front of a crowded classroom Monday afternoon, writes the week’s schedule in red magic marker on a white dry erase board and pulls a lectern to the center of the room.

Not one to mince words, Hart scans the room, including the 50 or so players forced to sit on the floor in front of him due to a shortage of desks, and gets right to the point.

“We are in game week preparations and that changes the intensity of everything we do,” Hart says sternly. “I don’t want any food in here. I shouldn’t hear any cellphones. Get used to it. Some of you haven’t been varsity players before. You’re varsity players now. Get used to it.”

In a season when so much surrounding Hart’s program is new – from the freshly installed FieldTurf the Red Raiders will play on to the Under Armour uniforms they will wear Friday night – other things haven’t changed.

Much of the talent Hart inherited when he took over the Red Raiders program before last season is gone. But enough remains to keep nonsense to a minimum.

“I know last year, we’d go into some things blind – we didn’t know what we were doing,” senior defensive back Mike Andrews said. “Now we have a better understanding of what we’re doing, and we can make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Hart, the son of a World War II Army Ranger and the younger brother of an Army colonel, is serious about every aspect of his program. Even the smallest detail requires attention. While there are moments of good-natured ribbing – like when Hart tells younger players that if they don’t like having to surrender their jerseys to team veterans, they can come see Hart, ‘hand me your tough [expletive] card and I’ll stamp it for you” – on most occasions, business is business.

It’s an approach Hart expects to filter through his ranks. Because he believes players are more apt to listen to their peers, Hart instituted the same Division Commander program he used at Indianapolis Warren Central, where he won an Indiana state championship in 2009.

On the first day of two-a-days, each position group chooses two players from its unit to represent it. In all, 13 Division Commanders are chosen, forming a group Hart charges with making sure things are being carried out correctly.

If players aren’t where they are supposed to be, Hart expects his Division Commanders to take care of it. When calls are made from the sideline during a game, it’s the Division Commanders who pass the call from position group to position group, ensuring a higher level of success.

It’s all part of Hart’s master plan. Last season, Hart guided the Red Raiders to a 6-4 record, their first winning season since 2008 and only a year removed from a 2-7 season – the school’s worst since 2005.

Two of Huntley’s losses were decided by a single point, including in Huntley’s playoff opener – a 10-9 heartbreaking loss to Fenwick. While the results weren’t all Hart was hoping for, he found that by year’s end, players were buying into his methods.

“Leadership has to come from a core,” Hart says. “The bigger the core, the better chance you have of getting great leadership. I think [coaches] all understand that leadership comes from your core – and that’s your kids – it doesn’t come from the top.”

Of the 13 Division Commanders, 11 are seniors. Among them is first-year starting quarterback Blake Jacobs. Hart considers Jacobs to be one of the most intelligent players he has coached during his 29-year career.

Although Jacobs is gifted, he hasn’t experienced what Hart calls “varsity fire.” Despite his inexperience, though, Jacobs’ position makes him a natural candidate as a Division Commander, forcing the leader in him to come out more than perhaps it normally would.

“If people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, I’ll get on them,” Jacobs says. “They may not like me right then, but they know we need to get the job done.”

Sometimes, criticism comes off as being too harsh. But deep down, veterans such as defensive lineman and first-year Division Commander Brandon Dranka know the message is understood, even if it isn’t fully when it is delivered.

“I think they respect me enough to listen to me,” Dranka says. “But I like [the leadership] role because last year, I was a follower, and that’s a lot different. As a leader, you’ve got to tell everyone what to do, and I think that brings a lot of respect to you.”

Huntley’s Division Commanders are a blend of vocal leaders – such as Andrews and Dranka – and those, such as Jacobs, who speak few words. Throughout the ranks, there’s a level of respect that grows throughout the season, allowing the quality of leadership to develop as much as Hart hopes his team’s talent does throughout the season.

But ultimately, Hart insists, both are up to his players – not him, making the role of his leadership core even more critical.

The responsibilities started well before the Red Raiders’ opener because, as Hart tells his players in the Monday meeting, the final score is only a reflection of which team prepared better. That means, for Division Commanders, there’s never an off day.

It’s a lesson Andrews learned on his first year on the job and one he passes on to those who haven’t yet fully grasped Hart’s all-business approach.

“You cannot follow the guys who come to practice to goof off,” Andrews says. “You just can’t. You have to pay attention and work hard. There can’t be a single play you don’t try.”

Marian Central's Ephraim Lee eager to carry load
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