Carrollton Hawks head football coach Nick Flowers instructs his players on an offensive scheme during the first official day of practice in Illinois.

Hunter Flowers throws a pass to receiver during a throwing drill.

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Carrollton linemen performing a blocking drill.

CARROLLTON - Every year consistently since the 2012 season at this time of year, the Carrollton Hawks are placed as WIVC South favorites and a top candidate to last the longest in the playoffs. In 2018, these Hawks are quite possibly the most fancied as they’ve ever been and that’s including the 2014 state runner-up group.

Carrollton returns a healthy combination of seniors and juniors from last season’s 10-2 team who won the WIVC South outright title and made it to the IHSA Class 1A quarterfinals for the fourth time in six years.

Head coach Nick Flowers enters year No. 15 at his alma mater with over 100 wins to his name, and although he has every reason to be giddy for another promising campaign he is steady about his team’s outlook.

“We had a good season last year and did some great things this summer in camp and 7-on-7’s, but we graduated some good football players,” Flowers said. “How do you replace an Alex Bowker who basically single-handedly won a couple of playoff games for us with extra effort. Nathan Leonard who upfront gave it 100 percent every play. We know we’re going to have our hands full week in and week out. We don’t have the depth that we want, and we’re not the only ones in that situation, but we I feel like we have quality players.”

“Optimistically I feel really good of where we’re at. We had a great practice this morning and confident we’ll be ready to play ball. I feel like we’re one unit right now. I think the togetherness we had last year has carried over and it seems like a lot of our boys know our strengths and weaknesses.”

The main reason why the Hawks are touted to be a force to be reckoned with not only in the WIVC, but in the state is the return of All-Conference quarterback Hunter Flowers, running back Byron Holmes, and All-State receiver Nathan Walker.

As a sophomore, Flowers (nephew of Nick) produced one of the biggest surprises in Illinois High School football last season throwing for 2,250 yards and breaking the school record for passing touchdowns with 34. Overall he was one of the most productive offensive players in 1A He led the WIVC North and South with 40 total touchdowns and 2,861 total yards.

After an undergoing shoulder surgery to his left throwing arm, he’s carried on and made tactical adjustments to his game as well.

“Hunter’s matured. I now go to Hunter and say I need your plays that you want to throw. I want your plays that are maybe, and I want your plays that you don’t want to throw,” Nick Flowers said. I now have the confidence in him to know that when we call a passing concept, he’s confident to throw the ball and get the ball where it needs to be.”

A pocket passer last season, Flowers will be called upon to use his feet more often and slowly develop into a dual-threat quarterback.

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“What we gotta have out of [Hunter] now as a junior though is his running ability,” Nick Flowers said. “We’re gonna go from a good team this year with him only throwing to a great team if he’s able to run the football out of the backfield. A running quarterback is unaccounted for in our scheme. If he’s able to run the ball, we’re going to be a great offense.”

Flowers lit up the field and Walker was his primary partner in crime.

He led the WIVC with 1,155 receiving yards and caught 15 touchdowns. Both are now school records.

The Hawks will have three other athletic receivers to compliment Walker nicely. Zach Flowers returns having caught 11 passes, four touchdowns, 281 yards and led the team with 25.5 yards per catch. Ethan Brannan was a crucial figure in basketball and baseball, and will now add an exciting piece to the puzzle for the Hawks. Fellow junior, Garrett Settles rounds out the receivers.

If that wasn’t enough, the Hawks return one the of three 2017 WIVC South First Team All-Conference running backs in Byron Holmes. He rushed 947 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 1,358 all-purpose yards to go with a league-leading 148 points.

Opposing defenses will undoubtedly have their work cut out with an all-state receiver as well as the other three who have the capabilities to be consistent, fast aerial threats.

“It’s exciting to have [Walker’s] experience and that threat back. At any given time he’s a dangerous receiver,” Flowers said. “What that does is it [attracts] so much focus on him from other defenses, and that allows Ethan, Zach, Garrett, and Byron to have some mismatches. I’ll put them up against any defenders out there besides their number one defender who has to be on Nathan. Not only are we excited to have him do what he does, but we’re excited to have him as a decoy out there.”

One other question mark for the Hawks is their offensive line as they graduated three starters. However, Carrollton returns All-Conference linemen, Isaac Cox and Jacob Decker. Juniors Cade McAdams, Lucas Settles, and Bradley Flowers take up the rest of the line.

Holmes and Walker were incidentally All-Conference at linebacker and defensive respectively. This season Walker will join Holmes along with Settles at linebacker. Cox, Decker, Nathan Cummins, and Blake Mauer return on the defensive line. Brannan and Hunter and Zach Flowers will occupy the secondary.

Defensively Carrollton struggled initially in the first couple weeks last season giving up at least 20 points against Triopia, Beardstown, and Calhoun. With the schedule being the same, but home and away games flipped Flowers, being honest won’t be surprised if the Hawks will be in a couple of shootouts right out of the gate.

“We have to be ready by week one to do what we do playbook wise,” Flowers said. “There’s no waiting around for later on. I will say we may give up some points early on in the year before we get our defense in physical shape to stop running teams. Our next 11 going up against our defense is not going to be the quality we face week one.”

A host of Carrollton linemen perform a drill.

Ethan Brannan runs back to a receiver line after catching a pass.

Freshman quarterbacks, Hayden Flowers and Grant Pohlman prepare to throw passes.

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