It’s the start of the school year and United Township senior Cody Wheeler has been having difficulty sleeping.
Filled with anticipation, his mind can’t help but wander ahead to the next morning when he and his teammates will gather before classes to get in an early football practice.
“I’ve never been more excited to step on a football field than I have been this year,” said Wheeler, an offensive guard and middle linebacker for the Panthers. “I go home and I can’t sleep at night because I’m so excited to come out and play football again. It’s just awesome. I love it.”
Excitement is a word that hasn’t been associated with the UT football program for quite some time. The last year the Panthers made the playoffs was 2001 and UT teams have gone a combined 18-89 since then. They haven’t won more than two games in a season in nine years.
Since he had his first opportunity to work with his team in the summer, first-year head coach Jason Kirby has been trying to help his players believe that they’re better than their past. It’s been a challenge, but he feels the Panthers are making headway.
“(The challenge is) to improve guys’ attitudes towards believing that they can win rather than doubting themselves, gaining that confidence that you can be successful in anything you do if you have perseverance. We’ll turn this around,” Kirby said.
Kirby has a history of success in his past. He’s coached six different programs in Illinois since 1998, and each of the four teams he spent more than one season guiding qualified for the playoffs and won a conference championship. He led both Sherrard (2006-09) and Rockridge (2010-12) to conference championships and playoff appearances and hopes to help UT get into a position to eventually do the same.
Andrew Tynes was one of the Panthers’ top rushers last year when the team went 1-8 overall and 0-5 in the Western Big Six. He said UT’s past struggles had resulted in a lack of motivation among the players which led to more losses.
Through a summer of 25 contact days and two official days of football practice this week, the Panthers have quickly bought into Kirby’s positive message and have taken to his coaching style.
“He keeps our intensity up,” said Tynes, who will play quarterback for the first time this season. “That’s what he does, he’s a motivator. He gets us ready; he gets us ready for the next play. If we’re down, he gets us right back up.
“He’s like a father figure, honestly. He’s a cool dude. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
There are 107 players out for the team this year, including two big names in UT athletics Kirby had to work on to get on the squad. Basketball standouts Jerry Myles and Lamont Mitchell, both 6-foot-5, will play receiver for the Panthers this year.
Kirby said his past teams have had run-oriented offenses and were sound fundamentally. With plenty of athletes on the squad, he said to expect UT to play at a fast pace this year.
“I think UT has had some speed for quite a long time and I think we’re going to try to take advantage of that,” he said. “Outside of that, we’ll work really hard to play good defense.
Tynes was reluctant to say what type of offense UT will run this year, but said to expect a change.
“It’s a different style. It’s a different UT. Just know that,” he said.
Kirby didn’t want to put a number on what he said he’d consider a successful season for the team this year. Seeing constant improvement and making sure his players have fun are his top two goals.
So far, they are, and more than two weeks from the start of the season, Kirby already has the Panthers believing they can do big things.
“I think we can make it to the playoffs, that’s my personal opinion,” Wheeler said. “I think we have a shot. We have great schools like Rocky, Alleman, Quincy, our rival Moline, but I think we can be over .500 in conference. I think we can do it.”