A program known for producing talent as well as playoff teams, East St. Louis assistant coach Hairth Mitchom says this year's team is the Flyers' best in several years. So much so, that the staff, lead by head coach Darren Sunkett, are losing sleep at night, kept awake by the excitement of what they could accomplish.
The hallmark of those 2008 and 2010 teams this group is being compared to were nationally recruited prospects who ended up signing with major college programs. Matching or exceeding those squads as far as recruiting attention goes, should be no problem.
Added Weight, Added Offers
It only takes a play or two of Kyron Watson's highlight tape to understand what you're dealing with. The 6'1, 220-pound junior made 142 tackles last season, but it was the three or four at the start of his tape, violent de-cleaters, which immediately caught the eyes of college coaches, and have lead to a number of early offers. If you had seen him just a short while ago though, you may not have guessed that he would become a BCS prospect.
"He is a fast learner," Mitchom says. "He wasn’t necessarily a big kid coming in, so sophomore year, we had him playing fullback just to get him acclimated with the contact. Junior year was really his first year playing linebacker. He's always been an aggressive kid. Towards the end of year, he began to understand it and blew up in terms of physical contact and meeting them in the hole. He's a special kid. As he grew, the impact of hips became a little more damaging. He came in at like 160-165-pounds. He's 220 now. In two years, he gained basically 60 pounds."
In addition to the physical abilities Watson has, he is equally as strong off the field, another reason he has drawn the collegiate interest he has to date.
"He's a great kid. He's going into this year as one of our team captains. He's a very vocal leader and he's a leader in the classroom. He's always been a scholar. Going into his sophomore year, we had issues because he was going to summer academic programs and missing football workouts. He's always been a good student and he's an all around good kid."
Among Watson's offers are Missouri, who he just visited, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue and Syracuse. Then there are two others who may be standing out from the pack.
"His top two, I think, honestly are Michigan of course and Kansas. Michigan because it’s Michigan. Kansas, it's because of Reggie Mitchell. He's great recruiter for our type of kids, which I’ll call inner-city kids. He does a great job of earning their trust and he's done that with Kyron. A lot of folks look and say how is Kansas in it? Reggie Mitchell is the reason. They have Tony Pierson, one of our kids. I believe, and I can’t speak for Kyron, but as soon as he gets a visit to Michigan, I believe he'll walk away committed to them."
Junior Athletes Neck and Neck
One of the Flyers' top prospects is already off the board as Greg Taylor committed to Missouri. While the 5'11, 175-lb athlete is slated to be a safety for the Tigers, but he does much more than that for East St. Louis.
"Super athlete," Mitchom said. "I don’t know if Greg has even reached his potential. He can literally play every position on the field in high school. Obviously, it's different in college, but he could play every position in high school. He can do so many things. Greg is automatically at DB, but we could put him at linebacker and he'd give Kyron a run for his money. He's just as physical and at 40 pounds lighter."
Right there with Taylor, Mitchom says, is Treevon Prater, a 6'2, 170-pound junior whose best football is still ahead of him.
"Memphis actually came in and they liked him and this was late last week. We haven't heard back from him. They didn’t believe he was 6’1 1/2, but they got to see. He's a late bloomer. He didn’t play freshman or sophomore year because he wanted to be a basketball player. Last year was his first year playing since little league and so it took him a little bit to get acclimated with the contact and all that. Once he got going, he got going. That's why his stats weren’t all that great, but as those who saw him at the camp this past Sunday saw, if he would have played early on as a freshman or sophomore, he easily would have gone for 1,000 yards last year. He's that kind of guy. He even plays a little corner for us."
Prater, Taylor and the other great athletes on the team push each other and the separation between the two of them on the offensive side of the ball, is very small.
"Right now, it's tit for tat between Greg and Treevon as to who our best wide receiver is. Greg has a little more speed, but Treevon can catch real well. Greg catches it with his hands, but he doesn't maneuver his body like Treevon."
The Next Crop
Defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr. is not only next, he's now. The 6'5, 260-lb sophomore recently added offers from Nebraska and Purdue to ones from Illinois, Kansas and Missouri.
"Terry will be, at some point, this is my early prediction, a top ten player next year. For his age and size, the skill set he has, he’s a very dominant player and will only get better. He gave what they consider a top 100 player, Dewayne Hendrix, a run for his money as being the best guy there at the camp on Sunday. The sky’s the limit. He will even play a little offense this year. Terry, I believe, will be the first five-star at East St. Louis in this era."
Not only is Beckner Jr. a great player, but college coaches will not have to worry about him off the field either.
"He's a good solid kid in the classroom as well. He's very well-mannered, always at practice, no issues, and has a very good support system. His parents are every game, but Mom wants to make sure we use the word "junior." That's just the kind of family they are. He's got that support system that will help him as well. I project him having 20-plus offers at least by mid-season if not before the season."
Natereace Strong was something of a phenom coming into high school based on what he did in middle school. While injuries have slowed him his first two years in high school, that has not stopped how from showing his potential and talent.
"Nate came into high school as a superb athlete who broke records in middle school track, and we threw him in early and he wasn’t necessarily ready and he had a hamstring his freshman year and a knee last year. In limited playing time, he had 1,400 yards in two seasons. He's one of those rare kids with size and speed in one package. He's legitimately right at 6'0, every bit of 205-206, he ran a 10.6 100-meter dash and benched 315 two weeks ago. He's a freak of nature type. I don't want to say Adrian Peterson, he has a long way to go, but I believe the talent is there."
Under the Radar
In addition to the players with the press clippings and offers, the Flyers have others who have not been talked about as much, but Mitchom believes are high level prospects as well.
"We have a couple good corners in Wilbert Jones and Kevinion Gilmore, two shut down corners who are superb athletes. I don't think they're BCS guys, I think they’re more MAC, more Conference USA type guys."
Jones (5-10, 165) had seven interceptions, two returned for touchdowns as a sophomore before playing more offense last season. Gilmore (5-10, 165), had seven interceptions last year, returning one for a score.
On the line, the team features juniors Luther Wright (6-3. 300) and center Cortez Spencer (6-0, 260), who benches 350-pounds and squats 500-pounds.
Then there is junior running back Cameron Donaby.
"Cameron and Nate look just alike with size and everything. Nate's a little bit faster, but Cameron is a guy we let run the ball when Nate got hurt and on 60 carries, had 600 yards, so he averaged about ten yards a carry. It will be interesting to see going into this year."
Others to know include sophomore (2015) defensive tackle Kenny Knight (6-1, 260), and several incoming freshman who Mitchom says have high potential.
In one day, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa State and Wisconsin stopped by the school. Many others are expected during the spring evaluation period. All of this is part of giving the young men of East St. Louis an opportunity for the future.
"You tell them, this is why you play the game. Of course, you want to have a good high school team, win state championships and all that, but the benefit is, some of these kids have never been out of East St. Louis. This gives them the ability to go out and see the world, utilize your talents to get school paid for. It's not only where we’re from, but in most places, parents don’t have 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 dollars a year for education. It's an invaluable opportunity."
On Thursday night, one of East St. Louis' own, Terry Hawthorne, who starred at cornerback for Illinois, is projected to be drafted into the NFL. Mitchom makes sure his young men know that, while the pros is a possibility, it is not something to bank on.
"The ultimate goal is to go to college and graduate with a degree. That's the ultimate goal. Of course, with Terry, he's a possible draft pick, but the main reason you do this is to be able to get an extra opportunity in life. There are several kids on the team who never get the opportunity to leave and it's great for them to be able to see things they wouldn't get to see growing up in East St. Louis. They all want it. It's their desires, hopes and dreams. It's about more than playing football, it's about being able to develop and create a new lifestyle to help them and everybody in their family."
And while these young men leave, the East St. Louis High coaching staff will remain there, helping the next group of kids reach similar goals, and the pay off of seeing their success is worth every minute.
"The smile on their faces when they get these opportunities is better than any record we could amass. Words can’t even describe the gratitude they feel when they get these opportunities. It's amazing."