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The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

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April 15, 2024

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Knox Football is moving into new era

Robert Nguyen 21

From right to left, Derrick jackson, Grant Graham and coach Aaron Willits huddle up during game against Ripon. (Rob Nguyen ‘21)

From right to left, Derrick jackson, Grant Graham and coach Aaron Willits huddle up during game against Ripon. (Rob Nguyen ‘21)

Head coach Aaron Willits is familiar with the Knosher Bowl, having played there as a player from 2005-2008. Willits walked into the bowl where he saw his parents, Andy Gibbons—who coached Willits at Knox, now the strength and conditioning coach—and his two little children. 

Willits was hired as Knox’s head coach on February 8th, 2021, taking over for the departing Damon Tameo. 

Willits is still adjusting to his new role as head coach. The morning of his first game on September 11, the Knox alum was restless. Willits always has a contagious, energetic nature about him. A person who thrives in constant motion, he had a moment of idleness. 

“I was one of the run-around guys; doing stuff with recruits, setting some things up here, getting out with the guys a little bit early. Then I had this moment like ‘okay, you’re the head coach,’” Willits said to me in his office decorated with pictures of his playing days and a TV mounted in front of his office desk.

The debut didn’t go how anyone on the Knox football team preferred, with a 20-14 loss to Lake Forest. The Prairie Fire trailed 17-0 entering the fourth quarter before roaring back into the game with 14 fourth-quarter points, punctuated by a 79-yard touchdown by junior quarterback Kaile Williams. Willits expressed the amount of growth that he’d seen in the junior from Henry, Illinois since they met in the spring. 

“Kaile definitely grew up in the second half,” Willits said. “Kaile became more decisive in the second half in general. That was a five-step. He’s back, we didn’t have our check release because they blitzed, and now he’s able to pull that down and that type of run and use his speed, his tenacity.” 

Williams felt that the week one game versus Westminster College that ended up canceled due to COVID-19 protocols played a role in the slow start. 

“Not playing that game against Westminster I feel like kinda hurt us as a team, but once the game slowed down the second half, I was able to come to, you know, play more of my game and play how we want to attack the defense,” Williams said. 

Willits wants his team to be a run-first team which shows up in the box score, as six different players had at least two carries in week 2. To have a run-first approach, the team has to be physical. On Williams’ 79-yard run, Willits discussed how senior wide receiver, Ethan Ralph-Jones, made a key block out of his pattern after realizing Williams was trying to get upfield. 

A run-first, ball-control-style offense works well with a stout defense. Four different Knox players accrued a sack against Ripon College, playing at the speed that Willits envisioned before the season. It’s not surprising that this fiery head coach wants his team to, in a way, take on some of his personality on the field. 

Willits envisions his team to play fast, and sprint to the ball. He knows that sprinting to the ball is going win every tackle, every down throughout the course of a 60-minute football game, but he believes it improves the chances of winning. 

“Just because we do sprint, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to win that tackle—we’re going to win that block. We’re going to win whatever that circumstance is, but [that strategy] at least gives us a fighting chance because if we’re not sprinting on a football field, you’re not in a good position to be successful” Willits said.

Willits has liked having Ean Rau at the Mike linebacker position, though the senior has experience playing a myriad of positions.

“It’s nice to have [someone] experienced there. Ean’s experienced, he’s patient and knows how to run to the ball, but also see things happen. That’s why he’s in a position to make double-digit tackles and have past breakups,” Willits said. 

Due to the pandemic, Knox hasn’t played a game since 2019, so the freshmen and sophomores don’t have much experience. As one of the two defensive captains, Rau—who finished the game with 12 tackles—has tried to help with the acclimation. 

“The biggest thing was trying to help them out in practice and even up to the game, how our game day works out and just trying to help them feel ready for that game,” Rau said. 

Rau’s experience and versatility—having played safety, linebacker, and on the edge during fall camp—has flashed early on to Willits. 

The linebacker from Wisconsin thought the defense played “really well” against Ripon, but left room for improvement. That way of thinking fits in with Willits’ credence about the team’s skill. 

“There’s always an opportunity to push towards perfection,” Willits said. “I know we’re never going to be there, but the more we push, the better the likelihood that we’re going to get to a level of success that we want.”

Willits is taking over a program that went 10-19 over the previous three seasons, and at the time of this writing, is 0-2. Losses are never appealing to a team or fans, but they present an opportunity to learn and reassess. 

“We talked very early on in camp that regardless of what happened in week one, that after week one was that we were going to go back to work,” Willits said. “But for our guys, it’s always this mentality […] that everything is just an opportunity to evaluate.”

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