SYCAMORE – Sycamore football coach Joe Ryan will tell anyone that he’s a run-first, pass-second offensive play-caller.
So it was a bit surprising when the Spartans rushed for only 76 yards in Week 1 against Lincoln-Way West.
Sycamore still walked away with a 17-13 victory, but the running game was mostly ineffective. Senior running back Austin Culton, who led the area in rushing last season, managed only 21 yards on 11 carries.
“It was just a matter of the fact that it was the first game,” Culton said. “The line didn’t really have the comfort level of playing varsity because it’s really young.”
That turned around in a hurry over the past two weeks in high-scoring victories over North Lawndale and DeKalb. And although Ryan will say that neither defense was as talented as Lincoln-Way West, the results are encouraging nonetheless.
The Spartans ran for more than 300 yards in each of their past two wins, including back-to-back 100-yard games for Cutlon.
It has been a quick turnaround for an offensive line that experienced a dramatic overhauled from last season. Ryan credits offensive line coach Brian Koehne with shaping a group that hasn’t allowed a sack in the past two games.
“Our line has really improved in all these practices and through the summer. I’m really impressed with what they’ve been doing,” Culton said. “Last year it was an experienced line and it took me a while to get used to that line, too, as with anything, but I definitely had to adjust to the things they do [this year].”
The boost in productivity from the running game has afforded Ryan more options within his offense. Sycamore exhibited a balanced attack against DeKalb as junior quarterback Devin Mottet was 13 for 13 passing for 214 yards.
“It helps you as a play-caller,” Ryan said. “We rely heavily on our running game to make everything in our offense go. Right now the running game’s been going, so it allows us to do everything we want to do.”
A new element to Sycamore’s running game this year has been the presence of sophomore Dion Hooker. When asked what Hooker brought to the Spartans’ offense, Culton and Ryan only needed one word: “speed.”
Hooker finished ninth in the IHSA Class 2A 100-meter dash as a freshman in 2012, posting a time of 11.17 seconds. He was the only freshman to make the 100-meter state finals in any of the IHSA’s three classes.
“He’s a young kid, but he has that speed,” Culton said. “I would say he brings the big-play threat because you never know what he can do. He’s going to be a good player in the years to come.”
Because of Hooker’s youth and relative inexperience, Ryan has been slowly integrating him into the offense, using him in a variety of positions, including running back, receiver and slot back. Against DeKalb, Hooker had his most productive outing, carrying the ball six times for 65 yards and catching a 15-yard reception.
“We’ve kind of been spoon-feeding him a little bit, giving him more and more as the weeks go on,” Ryan said. “He’s starting to understand three different [positions] now. That makes him a dangerous weapon for us.”
After a 3-0 start, Sycamore is ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press’ Class 5A poll. But the Spartans will get perhaps their toughest test of the young season tonight, on the road against Geneseo, a team thats only loss is to No. 1-ranked Morris.
“We’re probably going to see a similar defense like [Lincoln-Way West tonight],” Ryan said. “We’ll see if we’ve made some gains because we’ll face a really good defense like we did Week 1.”