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No. 8 Naperville Central expects a lot of action from receiver turned quarterback Sam Jackson

Junior Sam Jackson will move from receiver to quarterback and replace Sun-Times Player of the Year Payton Thorne.

Naperville Central quarterback Sam Jackson catches a ball as he warms up during a Redhawks’ practice.
Naperville Central quarterback Sam Jackson catches a ball as he warms up during a Redhawks’ practice.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Quarterback Payton Thorne, the 2018 Sun-Times Player of the Year, has moved on to Michigan State but his impact is still being felt and expectations are still high at No. 8 Naperville Central.

Junior Sam Jackson enjoyed a full season as Thorne’s understudy, but he did it in a unique way: at receiver. Jackson finished with more than 800 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns.

“Last year was my first time playing receiver and I did it for the team,” Jackson said. “It came naturally to me but quarterback is my spot. I’ve been playing it my whole life.”

Jackson played some quarterback his freshman year at Bolingbrook, so he’s taken varsity snaps. Learning from Thorne, who most consider one of the state’s best quarterbacks in recent memory, was invaluable.

“[Thorne] taught me how to execute the playbook and how to read coverages, which is one of the number one things you need to know as a quarterback,” Jackson said. “He really helped me a lot.”

Expectations are high for Jackson. Redhawks senior Sean Key, a defensive end, puts it plainly: “[Jackson] is definitely going to be making some jaws drop. He knows his way around the football field. He’s really good.”

Naperville Central’s Sam Jackson runs the ball during a practice.
Naperville Central’s Sam Jackson runs the ball during a practice.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times

Naperville Central coach Mike Stine isn’t holding back the praise either.

“[Jackson] is a special athlete,” Stine said. “He can make all the throws, he can throw the ball 60 yards flat-footed. He can make all the plays, has the athleticism and his football IQ is going to surprise some people. He is really a student of the game and he really learned a lot last year being around Payton every day. Sometimes I forget he’s only a junior. We demand a lot of our quarterbacks and I have no reservations. He can run our whole offense.”

Jackson gave an oral commitment to Minnesota back in February but is still going through the recruiting process. He has offers from Iowa State, Virginia Tech and more.

“I talked to Minnesota about visiting other colleges,” Jackson said. “They said they didn’t like it but they would let me do it. The recruiting process isn’t my focus right now though, it is the season.”

The Redhawks picked up a few extremely talented transfers: senior Jadon Thompson from Marist, Keon Green from Bloom and sophomore Reggie Fleurima from Naperville North.

Thompson has committed to Illinois and Fleurima has offers from Cincinnati, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia Tech.

That’s a lot of offensive firepower, but Key says the defense is still “the staple of the team.”

Stine is confident in his defensive line, led by Key and senior Angelo Ecklou.

“[Ecklou] is a 220-pound guy,” Stine said. “He’s a wrestler, is used to being in tight quarters and is strong and knows how to play with leverage. We think he has a chance to be really good.”

Jamarri Moore, Michael Wood, Lucas Fleming and Zach Liska are all experienced in the secondary.

“We are going toe-to-toe with the offense in practice,” Wood said. “We don’t have the big names or recruits and offers but we have dogs, especially on the defensive line.”

Naperville Central may have played the toughest schedule in the state last season. This season’s is even tougher. The Redhawks’ non-conference slate features Lincoln-Way East, Hinsdale Central, East St. Louis and nationally-ranked Pickerington Central, Ohio.

“The last ten years we’ve said we will play anyone we can, anywhere,” Stine said. “We know if we can win five or six we will be battle-tested and have a shot to make a run and be the state champs.”

Naperville Central schedule

Aug. 30 at Hinsdale Central
Sept. 6 vs. Lincoln-Way East
Sept. 13 at Pickerington Central, Ohio
Sept. 20 vs. Metea Valley
Sept. 27 vs. Naperville North at North Central
Oct. 4 at Neuqua Valley
Oct. 11 at Waubonsie Valley
Oct. 18 vs. DeKalb
Oct. 25 vs. East St. Louis