The defense does everything right.
The receivers are covered, the rush men stay in their lanes and pressure Lincoln-Way East senior quarterback Tom Fuessel.
Against good high school quarterbacks, that would be sufficient to win the battle. Against Fuessel, time after time, the play turns into a nightmare from a defensive persepctive.
Fuessel, who will lead the unbeaten Griffins in Saturday’s 4 p.m. Class 7A state championship game against Glenbard West, was named Offensive Player of the Year on the Herald-News Football All-Area Team.
A very good passer, Fuessel’s unique combination of speed, elusiveness and instinct make the Northern Illinois University recruit an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 7A All-State selection and a player of the year candidate in Illinois.
“I hate to make comparisons, but (former Thornton, Indiana and Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins standout) Antwaan Randle El is one of the best I have ever been around, and Tommy’s natural instincts remind me of him,” East offensive coordinator Joel Pallissard said. “And that’s a huge statement because Antwaan had an outstanding career.”
“No doubt everything starts with Tom,” Griffins coach Rob Zvonar said. “We’ve had special athletes, All-Staters, at quarterback in the past, but it’s hard to compare Tom to any of them because we never had a dual threat like that. He is the most electrifying athlete in our history.
“He can hurt you with the passing game as well as with his legs. We found that out (in practice) in the summer. We told our defensive guys exactly where to be for what we were running, and it was to no avail against him.”
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Fuessel, who said he was clocked at 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash before the season, has rushed for 1,502 yards and 21 touchdowns from East’s spread formation. He is averaging 9.3 per carry. He also has completed 75-of-135 passes, 55.6 percent, for 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns.
All that from a kid who waited for his opportunity.
He spent his junior season backing up All-Stater Blake Winkler.
“The coaches here built an offense that is perfect for all our skill guys,” Fuessel said, explaining his surge as a senior. “They really couldn’t do it any other way. Running the ball is our strength, but we can air it out, too.”
Fuessel said his scrambling “has to happen naturally. I have to make reads. I feel good about the reads I have been making, but that could always improve. So far, though, what we are doing is working. If you win, that’s all that matters.”
A fullback and linebacker in youth football, Fuessel said he did not play quarterback until he was in eighth grade.
“I knew I had speed, but I never thought moving to quarterback would work out this well,” he said.
Fuessel, who also kicks off and punts, triggers an East offense that has averaged 35.8 points, including 37.0 in four playoff victories. He regularly relates how his offensive line and East’s other skill players, particularly senior backs Nick Colangelo and Justin Corbett, have played into his success.
“We are blessed with the best offensive line in the state,” Fuessel said. “They protect me real well. And we have great weapons to rely on, so many great athletes.”
“Coach Pallissard designed a tremendous offense to fit Tom’s strengths,” Zvonar said. “The most exciting part is the guys around him have gotten better every week as well.”
As Zvonar noted, however, it all starts with the gazelle calling signals.
“Tommy is a tremendous kid who works extremely hard,” Pallissard said. “He’s focused and competitive. He’s a quick learner and sees the field well. He gets a snapshot of the scene and is dialed in. His anticipation is as good as anybody’s and he has a set of legs that is second to none.”
Said Zvonar: “I don’t know how anyone in the state could have done more for his team than Tom has done for us this season.”