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Ross hopes to push offensive stars to be even better
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QUAD CITY STEAMWHEELERS

Ross hopes to push offensive stars to be even better

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There is no question that the best thing about the Quad City Steamwheelers last season was the offense.

Quarterback E.J. Hilliard was named the Indoor Football League’s offensive player of the year. His two top receivers, Keyvan Rudd and Quinton Pedroza, both made first team All-IFL.

Some of the statistics were eye-popping. Hilliard threw for a league-high 2,739 yards and 57 touchdowns (with only three interceptions) and rushed for another 462 yards and 18 more TDs. Rudd and Pedroza each had more than 900 receiving yards and combined for 42 TD receptions. Pedroza tied for the league lead in scoring with 170 points.

But somehow the team went 6-8, which left coach Cory Ross wanting more.

"We can have the star quarterback and two star receivers, but we didn’t make the playoffs," Ross said. "So I wanted to bring in the best group of guys I could into camp and we’ll figure it out from there. I don’t want anybody getting comfortable."

Ross and the Wheelers opened camp over the weekend with some freshly imported talent to compete with both Hilliard and those veteran receivers.

"We’ve got a great group of receivers here that are very fast," Ross said. "That is going to be a great, great, great competition with the guys that we brought in pairing up with the guys that played with us last year."

JT Stokes, a wide receiver from Wingate (N.C.) University, was one of the standouts of the team’s opening practice. Tre Harvey, who Ross describes as "a hybrid type player," also looked good. Cleveland native Rashawn Dickerson also has a chance to emerge as a potent weapon.

"He’s got the quickness, but he’s so new, so raw, he’s such a rookie," Ross said. "But once he gets it, I think we’ll be able to see how explosive he really is."

The new quarterback brought in to compete with Hilliard is Caleb Lewis, a 6-foot-4 lefthander who was a two-time Florida Class 2A player of the year in high school, where he played for his father. He went to LSU as a preferred walk-on, then transferred and finished his college career as a backup at Robert Morris.

Ross loves Lewis’ intellect as well as his arm.

"He is so mentally capable of picking this up so fast," Ross said. "It’s crazy what his first day looked like."

Hilliard admitted to being completely unsatisfied himself the way the 2019 season ended despite those gaudy statistics.

"Watching film, I’ve seen a lot of things that I left out there personally, just a lot of passes I missed, a lot of throws I didn’t make that I could have made," Hilliard said.

He said he is looking forward to another season of throwing to Rudd and Pedroza, who possess exceptional size but perhaps not the pure speed of some of the newcomers.

"It’s just a matter of pulling the trigger," Hilliard said. "That’s my motto this year. Just pull the trigger, get the ball there. I trust both those guys. I know if I get the ball anywhere near them, they’ll make the play and come down with the football."

Hilliard moved back to the Quad-Cities at the start of December and has been working since then with Rudd, a former Davenport Central star who also lives here.

"I’m just trying to break some records," Hilliard said. "That’s my goal, try to break records, try to do something that’s never been done and just trust the process, trust my guys and go from there."

Ross, who is entering his third season working with Hilliard, likes what he has seen from the former Valdosta State and Florida International QB so far.

“He took over a leadership role way better than he has before,’’ Ross said. “It’s very impressive to watch how he’s working.’’

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