After eight years as the defensive coordinator at Belleville West, it’s not like Kris Stephens hasn’t implemented a game plan before.
What’s keeping him up nights is having to lead a team onto the field as head coach.
Stephens will be making his debut for Belleville East on Friday, when the Lancers play host to Normal Community High School.
“Whether I sleep or can’t sleep tonight, neither one would surprise me,” Stephens said Thursday. “It’s all the ancillary stuff that comes with being head coach that I didn’t have to worry about before, like making sure the team doesn’t take the field before the band. The nervous tension is building slowly.”
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But Stephens is confident in the X’s and O’s. He’s promised a more varied offense than the Lancers have shown in the past, one that will be led by senior quarterback Drew Millas.
“It helps to have an experienced quarterback on the field,” said Stephens. “Millas is a three-sport guy who knows what it takes to compete and doesn’t rattle. I don’t think there’s much they can throw at him that he hasn’t handled before.”
Knowing that Millas and senior running back Damone Witherspoon have the protection of an experienced line led by the likes C.J. Miller, Jacob Radden, and Dominic Colbert adds a measure of comfort.
So does opening a new chapter of his career on the home turf.
“You want to get those big road games out of the way early if you can, but I’m glad the first one isn’t a big road trip,” he said.
Normal finished it’s 2014 season at 8-3 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class 7A playoffs. It was a solid season, despite the compromised health of junior running back Alex Bozarth, who played most of the season on a broken foot.
He still managed to rush for 754 yards and six touchdowns, but it wasn’t up to par with the 1,065 yards and 16 touchdowns he registered as a sophomore in 2013. He’ll be back at full speed Friday behind a sizable offensive line that also returns three starters.
Normal also runs deep with pass receivers including Christian Wey and tight end Riley Rahuba, a first-team all-conference pick last season.
On defense, the Ironmen are led by safety and Northern Illinois Huskies recruit Andrew Gregory and by All-Big 12 pick AJ Devecchi.
“It looks like they are unsettled at quarterback, so it’s hard to know exactly what they are going to do offensively,” Stephens said. “But they have a really good running back and quite a few returning starters. There’s not a lot of flash there, but there’s a lot of substance.”
Friday’s game: Normal Ironmen (8-3 in 2014) at Belleville East Lancers (5-5).
Last meeting: East defeated Normal in Belleville, 28-21, to kick off the 2014 season.
Last season: Normal’s season ended with an 8-3 record after a 7A state quarterfinal loss to Wheaton Warrenville South. East qualified for the playoffs at 5-4, but lost in the first round to Edwardsville.
East players to watch: QB Drew Millas (110-for-224, 1,186 yards, 10 TDs); Damone Witherspoon (66 rush, 324 yards, 1 TD); Isaiah King (34 catches, 447 yards, 2 TDs); Shamar Welch (56 tackles, 2 Int.)
Normal players to watch: RB Alex Bozarth (754 yards, 6 TDs); NG Garrett Hirsch (6-3, 290); QBs Grant Price and Ryan Rebholz.