How Rockford-area football teams will stack up in the powerful NUIC

Jay Taft
Rockford Register Star
Star running back and defensive back Marey Roby poses for a portrait during a practice at Lena-Winslow High School Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Lena.

The powerful Northwest Upstate Illini Conference has been gouged and re-shuffled, and is now ready for a winner-take-all race to the end.

In the past year, the NUIC lost five teams to 8-man football: Ashton-Franklin Center,  Milledgeville, Amboy, Orangeville and Aquin. Fulton has joined, while West Carroll will not field a varsity team this year.

Those moves shift the NUIC from two divisions with 13 teams back to one conference with nine teams. They are: Dakota, East Dubuque, Forreston, Fulton, Galena, Eastland/Pearl City, Lena-Winslow, Durand/Pecatonica and Stockton.

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However the NIUC is put together, though, this powerhouse conference will be strong once again. The programs in the NUIC have won 23 Class 1A and 2A state championships, including nine of the last 10 in 1A. Another could easily come from the NUIC this season.

Here is my prediction on how the five Rockford-area teams will fit into the final NUIC conference standings:

1. Lena-Winslow

In the last IHSA postseason in 2019, Le-Win crushed Moweaqua Central A&M 58-20 to win its fourth 1A title in 10 years.

This past spring, Le-Win lost its season opener to Princeton, and also lost star running back Marey Roby to an ankle injury. They didn't get Roby back, but the Panthers won their remaining four games and finished tied for the No. 1 ranking statewide in 1A with Aquin.

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"The sky's the limit for this team," Roby said. "This is the kind of team that can go out there and win a state title."

Roby had surgery to repair his ankle and has a plate in his leg. But he is back now, and his coach says he's bigger, stronger and faster.

"All this did was make me hungry to work harder," Roby said.

The Panthers have what 25th-year coach Ric Arand calls "the fastest football team I can remember." Third-year starting QB Luke Benson's arm could provide a spark to the usually dormant passing attack, and linebackers Brody Mahon and Brady Eilders will lead a 4-3 defense.

"They are the team that I think everyone is trying to catch," Stockton coach Matt Leitzen said. "Everyone."

The Lena-Winslow football team runs through drills at Lena-Winslow High School Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Lena.

2. Durand/Pectanica

Durand/Pecatonica will be in the running — and Le-Win's coach is definitely weary. Senior quarterback Hunter Hoffman and Du/Pec run a spread offense that can hurt opponents in a lot of different ways.

"They are doing something that nobody else can do in this conference — and they do it the right way," Arand said. "They spread it out on you, but they are very, very physical. They can still push you around... This is a team to really watch."

Hoffman threw for 1,495 yards with 21 touchdowns and just one interception as Du/Pec went 4-2 in the spring. Its two losses were by one touchdown to Aquin in Week 1 and 24-21 to Le-Win in the finale.

In key matchups, Du/Pec hosts Forreston in Week 2 and is at Le-Win in Week 7.

"In my mind, until they get knocked out, Lena-Winslow is the team to beat in the NUIC," Stockton coach Matt Leitzen said. "But Du/Pec is right there, and closing fast."

3. Forreston

Forreston closes out the regular season at Le-Win. It has a long road to get to that game with a shot at the NUIC title.

But the Cardinals, 3-2 in the spring, are setting the bar high.

"We play to win state titles," Forreston's first-year coach Keynon Janicke said. "And in this conference, there's going to be a lot of battles to get teams ready, and to see what they've got. ... We've set our expectations pretty high, though. Our kids have set our expectations pretty high."

Forreston will pound defenses with the same dominant run game that earned them Class 1A state titles in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Running back Devonte King-Black should see a lot of the workload, and senior quarterback Logan Dyson and tight end Cole Becker could be key to making this offense click.

Du/Pec's Hunter Hoffman runs the ball in for a touchdown on Saturday, March 20, 2021, at Auburn High School.

4. Dakota

Dakota looks to rebound after losing its first two spring games and losing the rest to COVID-19 protocols.

Dakota will lean heavily on its speed. Running backs Adrian Arellano and Cam Foesch earned state medals with a pair of sprint relay teams in track this summer and had a solid frosh-soph careers. Foesch was the varsity starter last year, and Arellano was set to make his varsity debut last season when the season got shut down.

They will need a productive run game — the same one that netted them three state titles from 2005-2011 — to be solid to make a move in the NUIC this season.

"It's time to modernize," Dakota coach Joe Free said, "and use this speed that we have on this team."

5. Stockton

Stockton coach Matt Leitzen is looking to make a climb up the standings this year after a 3-3 spring. And he intends on doing it with a running back by committee.

"We want to be physical and just be able to run at you no matter who has the ball," Leitzen said. "In this conference, though, there are no easy Fridays, that's for sure. From top to bottom, there are some really, really good teams in the NUIC, just like always."

Leitzen said Ian Broshus will be their "home-run guy in the backfield," and second-year starter at quarterback Caleb Mamosser is ready to provide the offense with a little bit of balance.

Stockton opens the season at Forreston on Aug. 27, and will close out the regular season with back-to-back games against Le-Win (Oct. 15) anb Du/Pec (Oct. 22).

NUIC state champs the past decade

2010: Lena-Winslow Class 1A

2011: Dakota 1A

2013: Lena-Winslow 1A

2014: Forreston 1A

2014: E/PC 2A

2016: Forreston 1A

2017: Lena-Winslow 1A

2018: Forreston 1A

2019: Lena-Winslow 1A

Jay Taft:; @JayTaft