As two of the top recruits at their position on a national level, East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas and Edwardsville defensive end-tight end A.J. Epenesa have drawn attention based on the elite scholarship offers piling up.
Rivals.com rates Epenesa (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) the No. 1 junior defensive end recruit in Illinois and No. 23 overall player in the 2017 Rivals 100 list.
Epenesa has 18 scholarship offers right now, with more sure to follow. Already on the list are Florida State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
“He can go wherever he wants,” Edwardsville coach Matt Martin said. “He’s very explosive. What makes him special is he’s bigger, faster and stronger than most people. Then when you throw in the technique with it and the knowledge of the game, you start to get something really special. That sets him apart from the others.”
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Martin said Epenesa has danced around the attention as if it was another offensive tackle.
“He has expectations on him that a lot of us don’t have to experience,” Martin said. “He’s been handling it very, very well. He’s got people around him, who if he ever decides he’s better than what he is, they’ll help keep him humble. His parents are on top of everything.”
According to Rivals.com, Thomas has offers from Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and eight other national-level programs —and he’s only played two years of varsity football. He ranks 63rd on the 2017 Rivals 100 list and fifth in the nation among junior wide receivers by 24/7 Sports.
Thomas caught 57 passes for 1,152 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago while scoring 22 touchdowns. He already has scholarship offers from nearly every major college football power including Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and Michigan State.
“You name a school and Jeff has been offered by it,” East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett said. “He’s bigger, stronger and faster.”
Althoff’s potential on offense
In his first three seasons, talented Althoff senior receiver Keenen Young has 153 catches for 2,053 yards and 22 touchdowns. That includes 56 catches for 651 yards and eight TDs as a junior and 991 yards on 70 receptions as a sophomore.
“He’s working hard and is headed toward another big year this year,” Althoff coach Ken Turner said. “I’m expecting a huge year out of him and he’s expecting the same.”
A deep and talented receiving corps includes junior C.J. Coldon (42 catches, 485 yards, one TD), Goodwin (14 catches, 193 yards, three TDs), senior Tarkus Ferguson (seven catches, 82 yards) and junior Edwyn Brown.
Senior quarterback Jordan Augustine (148-of-245, 1,699 yards, 14 TDs, eight interceptions) returns along with a potentially loaded backfield that includes Malik Easley (910 yards, six TDs; nine catches for 132 yards) and junior Jaylon Bester (543 yards, five TDs).
East Side looks for bigger things
The East St. Louis Flyers dropped three of their first four games a year ago with a sophomore quarterback and inexperience on both sides of the ball.
Six straight wins and a berth in the Class 6A quarterfinals clinched a winning season but at East St. Louis, a 7-5 record just doesn’t get it done.
“Record-wise it was the worst season I’ve been part of as a football coach,” Flyers coach Darren Sunkett said. “We started a lot of young guys and made a lot of mistakes. Hopefully we learned a lot and can build on what happened last season.
“I know we improved as the season went on and got to the state quarterfinals but we have higher standards around here. The goal every year is to be playing in the state championship game.”
Winning at Highland
Last spring as a junior, outfielder Andrew Winning help lead the Bulldogs to a state baseball championship. Look for him to make a major impact on the football field as a senior running back.
Winning ran for 2,068 yards and scored 28 touchdowns combined as a sophomore and junior.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited about the potential of what a kid can do in a certain season, and I think more so this season because we don’t have all the talent around like we did last year,” Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke said.”The ball’s going to be in his hands a lot more. He’s a guy we want to give 25 touches a game and see what he can do.
“He wants that rock as much as he can get it.”
Two-way threats for West
Look for seniors TeAntez Anthony anad Nick Foster to make an impact on offense and defense for Belleville West.
Anthony used his speed and elusiveness to register 52 catches for 686 yards and eight touchdowns last season as the top target for since-graduated quarterback Sherand Boyd. He also was West’s top kick returner.
Foster will be used at running back and linebacker.
“He’s one of our great running backs but he really sets the tone on defense,” West coach Cameron Pettus said. “We saw it last year whenever we played big games. He did a nice job.”
Division I defensive line prospect DeMarlo Nesbitt had 55 tackles and five sacks as a junior.
“Physically he’s gifted and he’s really put on some good weight this summer,” Pettus said. “He’s 6-3 and he can fly and he’s got a motor; he’s got good pass rushing skills. He’s just a wrecking ball on defense.”
Veteran at QB for East
Drew Millas is a Missouri State recruit in baseball as a catcher, but his value as a signal-caller at quarterback in football will be huge for Belleville East this season.
“Having a kid like Drew Millas playing quarterback in my first year is just huge,” new East coach Kris Stephens said. “Just being able to relax, knowing how well he handles things and how well the other kids respond to him gives us a lot of hope heading into this season.
“There isn’t anything we can throw at him that he hasn’t seen before and with his athleticism and ability to both run and throw the football, he keeps defenses honest. The kid is a just a great leader.”
All-senior o-line for Columbia
The all-senior line at Columbia, most of whom are two-year starters, includes left tackle Auggie Hengel 6-4, 265), left guard Jake Stone (6-0, 255); center Dakota Meyers (5-11, 260); right guard Connor Little (5-10, 250, interest from Division II Truman State) and right tackle Corey Hornbostel (6-2, 245).
“We’ve got five seniors starting and we’re as big as we’ve been since I don’t know when,” said Columbia coach Scott Horner, whose team has won three straight Cahokia Conference titles. “These guys are all pretty good and it’s a good combination of everything. Even as big as they are a couple of them are quick and others are hard to move. It seems to be the right recipe.”
The Eagles, knocked out of the Class 4A playoffs by Althoff in each of the last two seasons, lost two highly effective weapons to graduation in All-Area running back Lou Isringhaus and All-Area quarterback Jacob Hill. Now playing at Missouri Baptist, the pair accounted for 3,529 yards of total offense and 52 TDs last season.
Norm Sanders, Todd Eschman, David Wilhelm and Dean Criddle contributed to this story.
News-Democrat Preseason Large-School (5A-8A) Football Rankings
Preseason rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses; records from last season.
Large school rankings (Class 5A-8A)
East St. Louis (4)
Also receiving votes: Highland (9-2), Triad (6-4), Alton (5-4), Waterloo (6-4), Mascoutah (4-5), Cahokia (4-5), Granite City (1-8)
Small school rankings (Class 1A-4A)
Also receiving votes: Freeburg (8-2), Central (4-5), Roxana (8-3), Carlyle (4-5), Wesclin (2-7)