2021 Sports In Kansas: 6A Football Preview

Dylan Edwards of Derby is one of the best in Kansas. Photo: Nathan Alspaw (Derby Informer)

By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas

Class 6A Preview. All game-by-game records and scoring offense/defense rankings from KPreps.com database and Conor Nicholl research. All roster numbers from MaxPreps, unless otherwise noted. Class 6A has a mix of traditional powers with Derby, Olathe North, Blue Valley and Blue Valley North – and several possible darkhorse candidates with Blue Valley Northwest, Wichita East, Olathe Northwest, and Olathe East.

Akpan turns around Wichita East, leads to No. 1 6A defense – and possible darkhorse candidate this fall

In ’17, Wichita East finished as No. 2 scoring defense in Class 6A, although played the third-easiest strength of schedule in the classification, per Prep Power Index. East permitted 16.1 points a game en route to a 3-6 season.

The following year, Ene Akpan, a ’02 Wichita South graduate and former collegiate and Arena League defensive back, took over the Blue Aces. Akpan has hired multiple coaches with high-level collegiate and NFL experience, including Bryce Brown, a former East standout running back. Additionally, Akpan, a security guard at East, has focused on attendance and high grades.

“It’s very important,” Akpan told me this summer. “The reason why I stress the behavior and grades and just total attitude on and off the field, because I like to be able to have our boys have more than one avenue.”

On the field, East runs individual drills longer than most other teams and highly stresses technique and effort. Plus, East players have long had informal workouts on Sunday afternoon where coaches, current and former players come together.

“Our individual drill is pretty long,” Akpan said. “I know some teams, they are very short, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Some days, we will go individual for about 45 minutes, and the expectation is … we have something to do, and we are definitely going to teach. The other thing is that I am probably a little lucky on is that I have got a lot of coaches that have played college ball, and so they come, and they teach some of the things that they also learned in college.”

Scheme-wise, Akpan and line coach Chaq Reed mainly lead the defense. East significantly blitzes and plays a lot of bump-and-run and man-to-man coverage. In ’18, the Blue Aces posted another 3-6 record and allowed 36 points a game, though faced a much harder strength of schedule.

In ’19, East improved to 5-4, the program’s first winning record since ’12. East vaulted to No. 11 in 6A scoring defense with 22.1 points permitted. Last year, the Blue Aces enjoyed their breakthrough season. Wichita East finished 7-2, its most victories in a single year since an 11-1 mark and state title in ’83. Akpan earned City League coach of the year.

“We perfect technique as much as possible,” Akpan said. “The other thing is effort. We all run to the ball. Everybody is fast and physical. Now, it’s a lot easier said when you have the Jimmys and the Joes.”

East led 6A with 11.8 points allowed a contest and ranked fourth offensively with 40.7 points a game. The Blue Aces lost, 17-2, to Wichita Northwest in Week 7, a game that decided the City League title. Northwest averaged 53.9 points a game to lead 5A. It marked the fewest points Northwest has tallied in a contest since ’14.

East eventually reached the Class 6A quarterfinals before a 49-42 loss to Junction City.

“If you are going to beat us, you are going to beat us, that’s plain and simple,” Akpan said. “It isn’t going to be about the scheme, it’s not going to be about anything else. You either beat my guy man to man or you didn’t. That’s the way I like it. There’s no hiding.”

In many ways, East is the Iowa State of 2021 high school football. The Blue Aces are coming off its best season in several decades, return a lot of key pieces and have an excellent defense.

East is a significant part of the biggest Class 6A question mark. How far can they rise?

Teams with strong 2020 defenses look to make standings jump

Wichita East, Olathe East (6-2), Olathe Northwest (3-4) and Dodge City (4-6) have all enjoyed excellent statistical defenses in one or both of the last two seasons. All four return top players, especially defensively.

In 2020, all four squads had a higher Class 6A ranking in defense than offense.

Plus, Blue Valley Northwest finished 5-2 in 2020 for its best season in seven years. Northwest returns basically everyone, including QB Mikey Pauley and WR Max Muehlberger, both with FBS offers. The entire starting offensive line is back, paced by Gabe Peterson. Pauley, Muehlberger and Peterson were first team all-Blue Valley selections.

Of those five teams, only Wichita East made it past the Round of 16 in the 32-team classification (Note: Just 30 teams played 6A in ’20 because of COVID, but all 32 are expected back this year). Olathe East, Dodge City, and Olathe Northwest all reached the Round of 16.

OE is fourth and second in 6A defense the last two years. Dodge City is third and tenth and now has legendary coach Glenn O’Neil, known as a defensive genius. O’Neil is 123-36 as a head football coach and won five boys’ basketball titles. DL Christian Erives paces the Red Demons’ line. Dodge City will move from an odd front to an even front and has six to seven back on defense. O’Neil told SIK’s Bethany Bowman this summer that DC has “some above-average athletes.”

“Getting off to a great start will really boost our kids’ confidence,” O’Neil said.

ONW improved from No. 29 at 40.7 points per game allowed in ’19 to ninth at 20.4 last year. Defensive tackle Jayden Oquendo (6-2, 295) has FCS offers.

Can those squads challenge the 6A hierarchy?

Derby, O. North, Blue Valley North, Blue Valley reigning hierarchy

Derby has played in six straight Class 6A state championship games with a 5-1 record. The Panthers have won the last three in a row. Blue Valley North is 1-2 in the last four 6A title games. Olathe North fell to Derby in the ’19 game. Blue Valley lost in the ’15 and ’16 final to the Panthers, and has a pair of state semifinals in the last four seasons.

Derby, Blue Valley North, Olathe North and Blue Valley all return elite talent for 2021. Derby is preseason No. 1. The other three teams will all be in the top-five, possibly top-four.

All four of those teams ranked in the top-12 in scoring offense. Derby was second at 44.6, and Blue Valley North finished ninth at 31.5. Olathe North tied with Blue Valley Northwest at seventh. BV was 12th at 28.3.

Blue Valley North and Derby stood 17th and 18th respectively in scoring defense.

Derby has likely Kansas’ top position groups at RB, OL, and DL. The Panthers feature two juniors with FBS offers: running back Dylan Edwards and 6-foot-5, 200-pound defensive lineman Sam Same. Derby has its highly experienced O-Line paced by Alex Key and Jonas Vickers.

“They got really, really good toward the end of the season,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said of his OL.

Blue Valley has the state’s top offensive line recruit with Nick Herzog, a Northwestern commit and the state’s No. 2 recruit. Blue Valley returns QB Greyson Holbert, RB Michael Solomon, WR Sterling Lockett, LB Hayden Essex, S Michael Allen and kicker Charlie Weinrich. All were first or second team all-league. Herzog and Allen are possibly the state’s best players at their respective positions.

Holbert could play a variety of several positions in college. He accounted for 1,664 yards of total offense and 20 offensive TDs.

BVN has QB Henry Martin, WR Mekhi Miller and DB Zach Yates. Martin, with an Illinois State offer, could break several Kansas career records.

He has thrown for 5,671 yards with 72 touchdowns against 12 interceptions in his career. Last year, Martin completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,981 yards with 35 scores against four interceptions.

Miller, the state’s No. 3 recruit, exceeded 1,000 receiving yards and has committed to Missouri. Adam Pummill takes over for Andy Sims as North’s new head coach. He served as offensive coordinator in ’20 and has a variety of previous experience.

Olathe North returns more than 2,600 rushing yards with backs Noah Palmer, Jacob Parrish and Aquantez Love and offensive lineman Parker Lane. Palmer, a QB/S, is probably Kansas’ best two-way player. Love has Iowa State, KU and K-State offers.

In 2020, both of Blue Valley Northwest’s losses came to Blue Valley North and Blue Valley.

Wichita East’s Tobi Osunsanmi high on recruiting scene; exemplifies East’s team speed

Senior Tobi Osunsanmi keys Wichita East’s defense. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder is listed as a safety but has played up in the box against run-heavy teams.

A Kansas State commit, Osunsanmi exemplifies East’s speed on defense. He was an offensive lineman in Little League football and a running back earlier in his high school career. Akpan called him “very, very athletic” and “super fast.” He switched to defense and then free safety last season.

Osunsanmi has a career-best 10.85 seconds in the 100-meter dash.

“Tobi excelled at free safety,” Akpan said. “Flying to the ball.”

Recruiting leader 247 Sports listed Osunsanmi as one of the top Midwest prospects to watch this fall. He is currently a three-star player, though could bump to elite four-star territory.

Osunsanmi was East’s third-leading tackler with 44 tackles. He helped East score three defensive touchdowns and recover 11 fumbles.

“That speed and size combination is rare,” 247 wrote about Osunsanmi this summer. “He does not just line up different places, but makes plays from each of those spots. Can make his way through the wash and stop the run when in the box, but also shows effectiveness in coverage. Solid wrap-up tackler but would still like to see him explode through ball carriers more. Shows good twitch and backpedals and transitions well for a player of his size. Rare traits and good growth potential is the kind of profile that usually makes for a successful outside linebacker in college.”

That speed helped East capture the 6A 400-meter relay title ahead of Olathe North, Junction City, Blue Valley and Blue Valley North.

East ran 42.74 with one senior and three juniors: Justin Bell, Osunsanmi and Travon Manuel. The trio also on the 1,600 relay that finished ninth. Manuel finished eighth in the 100 meter and 200 meter finals. Akpan said Manuel “did a great job” at cornerback last year and allowed six to seven catches all season.

Sophomore quarterback Deonte Mitchell returns after a freshman year shortened by injury. He tossed 800 yards and 15 touchdowns in five games.

“That’s probably one of the most frightening things for athletes to come play varsity football at the quarterback position as a freshman,” Akpan said. “And so now, he got those jitters out of the way, and most games he played, he played very successful. He’s bigger, stronger, faster. One of the biggest things that we harped on him was to do yoga, to get more flexible, because obviously I think if he was a little more flexible, the injury would not have been as intense, but he’s doing all the little things.”

Caqouy Patterson returns after he was second in the City League in receptions and receiving yards in ’19 and ’20. East labels Patterson “Cheetah,” after Kansas City Chiefs’ speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

“One of the fastest kids in the state of Kansas,” Akpan said.

Silver Trophy rivals Junction City and Manhattan likely to pace Centennial League

Centennial League rivals Junction City and Manhattan are usual contenders, but have faced a playoff ceiling, especially against Derby. Both suffered big graduation losses. Namely, JC graduated quarterback Andrew Khoury. Manhattan lost defensive tackle Damian Ilalio, the Sports In Kansas 6A Defensive Player of the Year, and multi-year starting quarterback Dayne Aschenbrenner.

Junction City’s semifinal showing in 2020 marked its best run since its title in ’08. Longtime coach Randall Zimmerman has cleared 200 career wins. JC led 6A with 45.4 points a contest. The Blue Jays lost to Derby in the playoffs in ’15 and ’20.

Manhattan’s semifinal trip in ’18 marked its best since ’06. Manhattan fell to Wichita East in the playoffs last fall. The Indians are 0-5 against Derby in the postseason since ’11.

Manhattan is sixth all-time in Kansas wins, training Lawrence, Frontenac, Smith Center, Silver Lake and Paola. Since ‘09, Manhattan is 98-27 overall, though 65-10 in the Centennial League and 33-17 in non-conference games.

Junior Keenan Schartz is expected to take over at quarterback for longtime coach Joe Schartz. Senior wide receiver Joe Hall, a captain, returns after 19 catches. Backs Vinny Smith and Jason Sanchez were limited with injuries in ’20, and Manhattan returns one offensive line starter, per media reports.

Manhattan’s strength likely comes from the back end of its defense with DBs Hall and Colby Klieman and Sequoia Robinson, a hybrid who can play LB and DB.

Other top players/contenders

Olathe West finished is 5-7, 6-4 and 5-4 in the last three years since it became a varsity program. Senior Anthony Favrow is among Kansas’ top-10 running backs and returning second team all-Sunflower League. Olathe West senior defensive back Will Krzykowski returns. Favrow rushed 158 times for 1,168 yards and 12 scores. As a sophomore, he collected 179 carries for 1,324 yards and 16 TDs.

Lawrence Free State had 2020 wrecked by COVID and finished winless. Senior defensive lineman Tai Newhouse, a Tulsa commit, was second team all-league. FS also picked up WR Jordan Brown from nearby Basehor-Linwood.

Garden City (3-6) has struggled the last few seasons, especially offensively. GC was seventh in 6A scoring defense at 20.3 points allowed in ’20. The Buffaloes return their top-two receivers and 80 percent of its tackles. Defensive lineman Terrell Elliott has Army and Air Force offers. Senior linebacker Joel Bellows paces with 99 tackles, 11 for loss.

Washburn Rural (4-6) returns junior linebacker Ty Weber, one of the state’s top prospects for the Class of 2022. He collected 116 tackles in 10 games, first among Kansas 11-man players, per MaxPreps.

Top-15 Class 6A Scoring Offenses in 2020

Junction City 45.4

Derby 44.6

Lawrence 42.6

Wichita East 40.7

Shawnee Mission Northwest 33.1

Gardner-Edgerton 32.3

Olathe North 32.0

Blue Valley Northwest 32.0

Blue Valley North 31.5

Manhattan 29.9

Olathe East 29.1

Blue Valley 28.3

Olathe West 27.3

Dodge City 23.8

Washburn Rural 23.2

Top-15 Class 6A Scoring Defenses in 2020

Wichita East 11.8

Olathe North 12.9

Olathe East 16.4

Blue Valley 16.8

Lawrence 18.0

Wichita West 18.6

Garden City 20.3

Manhattan 20.4

Olathe Northwest 20.4

Dodge City 20.8

Blue Valley Northwest 20.9

Shawnee Mission Northwest 21.3

Olathe West 22.6

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