Mascoutah football coach Josh Lee knew all about Devin Wills long before he put on his purple and white Indians football uniform for the first time.
A former head coach at Riverton High School who had been working in pharmaceutical sales before taking on the Indians’ program in the spring of 2016, Lee had seen Wills compete as a middle school athlete. From the outset, Lee knew Wills could be special..
“Actually my daughter ran middle school track with him. That’s where I first saw Devin,’’ Lee said recently. “ I knew from watching Devin that kids like him don’t come around very often. He had a chance to be a game-changing type football player.’’
Lee was right.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
After missing the final seven games of his sophomore season with a broken collarbone, the 5-11, 195-pound Wills has been one of the top running backs in the St. Louis area as a junior this fall. Heading into the Indians Mississippi Valley Conference game at Triad on Friday, he leads the metro east and is third in the St. Louis area in rushing with 1,038 yards.
Wills is averaging 9.6 yards per carry and has 12 touchdowns.
With two wins in its final four games, the Indians will clinch their first winning season since 2008 and first playoff berth since 2009 when they finished 5-5 after losing a first round Class 4A contest to Rochester.
The Indians finished 8-4 in 2008, advancing to the Class 4A state quarterfinals before losing to Mater Dei.
“I know its been a long time since Mascoutah football made the playoffs. I don’t know how. I just know its been a while,’’ Wills said. “That’s the goal.
“We’ve all played together for so long. This is a special group. We’ve worked hard to get to this point and when things haven’t gone our way, we’ve picked each other up. But we’re not there yet. We’ve still got work to do.’’
Lee, who took over when current Mascoutah athletic director Scott Battas stepped down following the 2015 season, guided the Indians to just four wins over the last two seasons.
But with 13 “core” seniors who have been with the program since he took over, along with an athletic group of underclassmen, the Indians have turned things around. After dropping a heartbreaking 36-35 decision to Columbia to start the season, Mascoutah has won four in a row and gain more confidence with each passing week, Lee said.
““We’ve been pretty happy with the way things have gone so far this year. We kind of knew coming in that we had a chance to be pretty good because this group has some talent,’’ Lee said. “We knew that playing Columbia, which has a very strong program, the first week would give us an idea of where we stood. We came out of that game feeling like ‘Ok, we can play with some people.’’’
With first-year offensive coordinator Jason McGovern directing a balanced attack led by the running of Wills and defensive stars Malik Green and DeJuan Tyson, the Indians are suddenly contenders in the Mississippi Valley Conference.
“The culture has changed since I got here.,’’ Lee saiid. “ These kids have always wanted to win. The question was that were they willing to put in the work in the offseason and in the weight room, necessary to have success on the football field? There was a group of them who did, who worked their tails off. Thatt kind of attitude and work ethic has trickled down to this current group.”
That list includes Wills, who rushed for more than 300 yards and had four touchdowns before being injured early in a week three loss at Mahomet-Seymour last fall.
“I was hoping to have a good year. This is kind of comeback year for me because I missed the last seven games last season with the collarbone injury,” Wills said. “This season, I’ve just concentrated on being a better and smarter running back.
“I’m bigger and faster than I was last year. I’m able to read my blocks better and seeing and hitting the holes faster. But I have to give a lot of the credit to my offensive line. Those guys have just been tremendous all season. I wouldn’t be able to do what I have with out them.”
Wills hasn’t had fewer than 149 yards rushing in any single game through week 5 this season. His 324-yard, 3-three touchdown performance in a 21-20 win over Mahomet-Seymour three weeks ago was one of the best in the region this year.
And Lee and McGovern are making sure Wills is getting the football in the Indians well-balanced offense.
“Coach McGovern likes the wide-open offense and I’m more of a coach who prefers the running game. We had a meeting of the minds earlier this year to come up with a more diverse offense that could run and throw the football,’’ Lee said, laughing.
“The one thing I told Jason was that I know we’ve got two good quarterbacks and that we’ve got speed out wide with the receivers, but a big part of his job was going to be getting Devin the football as much as we can. He has done a great job of that.’’
With a wins this week against Triad and next week at Civic Memorial, Mascoutah would face a possible MVC title game showdown on Oct. 12 at undefeated and state-ranked Highland. The Bulldogs are ranked third on the current Class 5A state poll.
“There is a lot of work to do yet. There are a lot of great coaches in this conference when you think of Paul Basler at Triad, Ric Johns at Jersey and the job that Jim Warnecke has done at Highland is tremendous,’’ Lee said.
“This group hasn’t had a lot of success and to be off to the 4-1 start now, they’re starting to get excited. And they should be excited. But we (the coaching) staff are trying to keep them grounded. Literally, we’re taking it one rep, one practice, one game at a time. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”